Glad to be back

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

Glen Hnatiuk is back on familiar ground, back where he feels comfortable, clinging by his fingernails to the PGA Tour dream. It is not a place where many players could claim a comfort level but, after his experiences of the past nine months, the Manitoba native couldn't be happier to be back in the pressure cooker.

Sidelined since last April by elbow surgery, Hnatiuk, without any fanfare, took his first baby steps toward maintaining his Tour status this week. While many in the field were tearing up the desert courses in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Hnatiuk was more than happy just to be in the game again.

"I don't know how long it's going to take to get comfortable with my swing or to shake the rust off," he said. "But it's just nice to be out here able to compete."

Hnatiuk didn't set the world on fire in his comeback tournament. He missed the cut yesterday, playing four rounds in one-under-par 287, to finish in 117th place in a 128-man field.

Still, it was a start.

A professional since 1990, Hnatiuk first earned his PGA playing privileges in 1998. He failed to keep his card for 1999, got it back, and has guarded it jealously ever since, scraping by at the bottom end of the money list, grinding out just enough earnings every year to stay in the game.

The top 125 players automatically retain their cards. In the past five years, Hnatiuk has been No. 101, No. 119, No. 120 and No. 124. This year's status, delayed by a medical exemption, won't be determined until he has played 20 tournaments.

"I've always felt fortunate to be out here with the best players in the world," Hnatiuk said.

"I know how hard it is to get here and it's even harder to stay here."

Harder yet when you are coming off a serious injury with your 40th birthday staring you in the face.

After years of struggling through the pain of 'tennis elbow,' popping anti-inflammatories like candy and playing far from his best, Hnatiuk swallowed hard and decided to go under the knife.

On May 21, 2004, the Selkirk, Manitoba native underwent what is known as a 'Topaz procedure' to repair a frayed tendon in his left elbow.

"When the tendon is torn really badly, they have to go in and actually sever it all the way and then re-attach it," he said. "Mine wasn't that bad. In my case they poked holes in the tendon with a radioactive probe and by releasing the tissue, it aids the healing.

"Almost as important as the tendon itself, there was a lot of inflammation and scar tissue that had to be cleaned up."

Even though the surgery wasn't as invasive or complicated as it might have been, the recovery time was torture for a man of Hnatiuk's competitive instincts.

"At first it wasn't hard at all," he said. "I stopped playing in April and had my surgery scheduled for the third week of May. So at least I had the anticipation of surgery. You have to remember that I had been dealing with the pain and inflammation for two or three years, so finally doing something about it caused a level of excitement all its own.

"But a couple of weeks after the surgery, it wasn't feeling bad and all I wanted to do was play golf. That's when it was tough because right then I knew it was going to be a long time before I even picked up a club, let alone play in a tournament. The competitive instincts were all still there, but I couldn't do anything about it."

When he wasn't driving his wife Julia crazy or chauferring his daughters, Aileen, 9, and Morgan, 7, or watching them play competitive soccer, or when he wasn't worrying what the next hurricane was going to do to his family's Pasco County, Fla., home, Hnatiuk engaged in some pointed sessions of introspection, trying to come to grips with the mental side of the game that so often has been his downfall in the past.

"I've talked about this with my swing coach so much and I'm determined this year to make it happen," he said. "It comes down to this: When I'm playing well and hitting it good, I have to allow myself to get more out of it. And when I'm not playing well, I have to find a way to get more out of it.

"You see so many guys out here who aren't hitting it well but they're still finding a way to make a score. They are constantly making up for their mistakes whereas I am continuously compounding my mistakes.

"That's one of the things that has haunted my game over the years. Some guys will go on hot streaks for three or four weeks in a row, maybe even win, but always in the top 10. I've never done that. If I have a top 10, the next week I might make the cut, maybe not.

"That's one of my goals. That when I start playing well, I have to find a way to sustain it.''

As if it's not tough enough that Hnatiuk has to get his game in order after a long layoff, he has a PGA Tour-imposed deadline.

When surgery beckoned, he was granted a medical extension on his playing privileges. At that point, his 2004 earnings were frozen at $103,500 US, the amount he had earned in nine events.

Now that he is back, the meter is running again. To keep his card, he will have to earn and additional $519,762 over the course of his first 20 events this season to match the dollar figure earned by Tag Ridings, the 125th player on the money list last year.

"I just have to grind it out," Hnatiuk said.

"That's okay ... I'm used to that."

The first order of business is to get his strength back in his left arm. He didn't touch a golf club for five months after surgery.

"In October, I started hitting about 20 sand wedges a day off a tee, but I really didn't start practising until the end of October.

"I still have a little soreness, which I'm told is natural. I can function with the little bit of pain I have. The big thing is to keep regaining strength and muscle. It shocked me how the muscle just disappeared."

All week long in Palm Springs, other players have been stopping Hnatiuk on the practice range, welcoming him back and wishing him well.

Hnatiuk, with typical modesty, was surprised and pleased to be remembered.

"I didn't think anybody would miss me," he said.

They did.

But not as much as he missed them.


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