The moment Joseph Bramlett walked onto the property this week at Pebble Beach Golf Links, the memories flooded back.
There was the hole-in-one on the par-3 fifth during a semifinal victory in the 2005 California State Amateur as a 17-year-old. That week was the first time he had ever played the iconic layout, and although he lost the 36-hole final, 2 and 1, the next day to Southern Californian Don Dubois, 29 years his senior, the course remains a favorite. He returned to the California Amateur for the final time the following year at Pebble Beach, losing in the semifinals to Northern Californian Jeff Gilchrist.
There was his only start in a U.S. Open in 2010, just days after receiving his diploma from Stanford University. He would miss the cut, but calls it “an amazing week” that included a practice round with fellow Cardinal and three-time U.S. Open champion Tiger Woods.
There were his two starts in the PGA Tour’s AT&T National Pro-Am in 2011 (MC) and 2012 (T-40).
And now at 31, Bramlett is back at “his favorite venue,” for the 119th U.S. Open Championship. He earned his second start in the event by converting a 6-foot par putt on the first playoff hole of the sectional qualifier at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., on June 3.
“I’ve probably played 40 to 50 competitive rounds out here,” said the San Jose, Calif., resident. “I have had lots of flashbacks.
“This [course] is just at another level for me.”
Ever since he attended the AT&T National Pro-Am as a kid, playing Pebble Beach was a dream. Bramlett’s father, also an avid golfer, told him he would have to earn his chance as he wasn’t going to shell out the $500-plus green fee. Even when he qualified for the California Amateur in 2005, Bramlett needed to navigate two stroke-play rounds at nearby Poppy Hills to be among the low 60 and ties to play Pebble Beach in the final stroke-play round. He did so on the number, then advanced through the 32-man match-play bracket.
It was just the start of what would be a decorated amateur career. Three years earlier at age 14, he became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, at Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit. It was the first of six U.S. Amateur berths for him. As a Stanford freshman, he helped the Cardinal claim the 2007 NCAA title, earning second-team All-American honors.
But his next two seasons were marred by a pair of wrist injuries, perhaps a harbinger of things to come. A bicycle accident caused him to miss 13 months during which he couldn’t pick up a club.
By his senior year, he was completely healed and he capped it by qualifying for the U.S. Open at Pebble. Moments after graduating with a communications degree, he and longtime friend Jay Myers made the 90-minute trip to Pebble for an afternoon practice round. Rounds of 79-75 ended Bramlett’s first event with professionals before the weekend.
That fall, he successfully navigated Q-School to earn his PGA Tour card for the 2011 season. But Bramlett admitted he wasn’t fully prepared for the rigors of the professional game, despite making 12 of 25 cuts and earning just under $180,000.
“I had a lot to learn,” he said. “There’s a big difference between college and professional golf. Everything you have to manage and competing week in and week out.”
Two years later, he was warming up on the range at a Web.com Tour event in Utah when he felt a twinge in his back. Bramlett had dealt with physical setbacks in college, but this was a potential career-ending injury. He was diagnosed with a torn disc in his lower back as well as hip issues.
Years of what he called poor swing mechanics had put so much stress on his lower back that it was “a ticking time bomb, and it eventually just went out.”
He visited 15 spine specialists, with the first 14 telling him they would not operate. The 15th surgeon wanted to “open him up,” and insert rods that likely would have ended his career. Bramlett wasn’t willing to take that risk, so he chose rehab.
Bramlett tried to play a couple of events 2½ years into the process, but his body wasn’t ready. Then three years ago, through his Maryland-based agent, Fred Fried, he met instructor John Scott Rattan, who works out of Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Along with his trainer, Cody Fowler, Bramlett slowly worked himself back from the abyss.
“It’s so debilitating,” said Bramlett. “When [the back] goes out, you are literally just on the floor and you can’t move. It’s incredibly humbling because you take for granted just having breakfast and sitting upright. I spent weeks just lying on the floor, watching TV and not able to do anything.
“As an athlete, it’s like an identity crisis. You start losing who you feel you are and trying to figure out who you are going to become because it doesn’t match up.”
Fortunately, Bramlett had a positive support system, including his girlfriend, Samantha Boozer, a yoga instructor who provides mental strength on a daily basis. Rattan completely rebuilt his swing and Fowler got him physically where he needed to be.
By January of last year, Bramlett was ready to take his new body out for a test drive on the Web.com Tour. He eased into it at the outset, but with no setbacks, he managed to play the last 13 events, missing out on a PGA Tour card by a single stroke in the season finale in Portland, Ore. He tied for fifth in the first playoff event in Columbus, Ohio, but missed the cut in the last three, which relegated him back to the Web.com Tour for 2019.
This year, he has made 8 of 13 cuts, including a tie for seventh in the Savannah (Ga.) Golf Championship. More importantly, he’s playing pain-free. Each morning he stretches for 30-45 minutes and repeats the process at night.
Thirty-six intense holes with Rattan on the bag at the sectional were a testament to Bramlett’s physical stamina. Along with local favorite Billy Hurley III, who was the qualifying medalist, Bramlett had a large support group at Woodmont. “I was the adopted local boy,” he said.
Bramlett and his team celebrated with a post-qualifier dinner, then it was on to thoughts of playing Pebble again. This time, Bramlett comes to the U.S. Open more mature and prepared. Plenty of family and friends, who can make the short drive from the San Jose area, will be outside the ropes.
“There is lots of buzz, but I am more comfortable and at peace with things,” he said. “I have a lot more professional experience under my belt. I know what to expect week to week, and how to schedule my week. Back [in 2010], I really didn’t have a clue. [This year] I’ll be ready to go for Thursday.”
And, perhaps, to create one more Pebble Beach memory for the scrapbook.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.