Sterne plays catchup after back ailment

Richard Sterne of South Africa

Richard Sterne of South Africa

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Richard Sterne stepped off the 72nd green at Emirates Golf Club and uttered a common golfing lament: “I’m hitting the ball nicely; I just can’t get it in the hole.”

After his recent travails, it’s almost a welcome frustration for the 29-year-old South African.

Sterne is a five-time European Tour winner who counts Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel as his contemporaries. Indeed, between Sterne’s first win in 2004, the Madrid Open, and victory in the 2009 South African Open, the diminutive player from Pretoria was held in higher regard than his two compatriots.

But he’s been the forgotten man of that trio for the past year. Back problems forced Sterne to sit out nearly the entire 2010 season.

“I’ve got a disc problem in my middle back and also my lower back, so I’ve got a couple of issues to deal with,” he said.

“I started to feel the pain in January last year and tried to play through it. It just got really bad, and I had to quit.”

Sterne spent the entire season at home wondering when he would be able to play again.

“At first, it was nice to step back and take time off, but I was away a lot longer than I expected,” Sterne said. “I didn’t touch a club for about eight months. Rotation was a problem, so golf was out. I just did rehab and physio.”

In fact, he didn’t start practicing until Dec. 9 last year, three days before the Alfred Dunhill Championship. The Dubai Desert Classic last week marked the fifth tournament into his comeback. It should have been six, but while practicing for the Qatar Masters, Sterne realized deep rough wasn’t good for his rehabilitation.

Sterne made the cut in all five tournaments, with a best place of 21st in the South African Open in December. But winning golf tournaments isn’t his main concern.

“I’m still struggling. I still need a lot of treatment every day, but at least I’m playing,” he said. “I haven’t really set myself a lot of goals this year. I just want to try to get back to full fitness, maybe try to get back into the top 100 in the world and see how it goes. It would be nice just to play a full season.”

With so much time at home, he got to watch a little bit of golf on TV. Last year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews especially captivated him.

“It was nice to watch Louis (Oosthuizen) win the Open Championship. It was also nice to see Charl winning tournaments,” Sterne said.

“It was a bit frustrating because I wanted to be out there with them. They’ve kind of left me behind. I want to get back to full fitness as soon as possible and start joining them.”

Sterne has a lot of catching up to do.

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