LEE TREVINO was always one of the most entertaining players in professional golf, but now - at the age of 65 - he's also a miracle of modern science.
The "Merry Mex" has returned to the Champions Tour after a lengthy layoff, choosing the Constellation Energy Classic at Hayfields Country Club to put his bionic lower back to its first real test since he underwent revolutionary surgery in Germany four months ago.
The procedure involves the insertion of small titanium rollers to create space between the discs and reduce the likelihood of nerve inflammation and painful back spasms. The surgery has made it possible for Trevino to get back to doing what he loves best, but it is not available in the United States because it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
"The operation is called an X-Stop," Trevino said. "The rollers are inserted between the facets and they spread the vertebrae out. ... It's one of the simplest operations I've ever seen, but the FDA has not approved it in this country, and I think that's because there are a lot of people trying to block it to protect their own interests."
Trevino has become something of an expert on the lower back because he has been battling with his since the 1970s. He underwent disc surgery on his lower back in 1976 and has a metal plate in his neck from an October 1994 operation to fuse two vertebrae. His third spinal surgery last October left him needing epidural injections to compete, so he and a Dallas back specialist, Dr. Ralph Rashbaum, went looking for answers outside the conventional American orthopedic community.
"The thing I'm most proud of is my doctor [Rashbaum]," Trevino said. "Doctors have thousands of patients, but he took a special interest in me and found a doctor in Germany. He told me, `I've found a guy who will give you an operation that will give you some space [between the vertebrae].' And he went with me, and he was there in the operating room."
That was in early May. Trevino started hitting balls in earnest in early August and decided to shoot for one of the Champions Tour events in September.
"I'm not at full strength," he said. "Who would be? I started hitting balls around the fifth of August, and the biggest problem was mental. I started really letting go of it a week ago. I entered [the Constellation Energy Classic] on Friday. I told my wife, `Enter me. I'm full out again.' "
The Champions Tour trumpeted his return enthusiastically, but Trevino is not fooling himself. He predicted jokingly that he is all but certain to finish "second to last" in the tournament this weekend.
"I'm short 10 yards with my irons and 20 yards with my driver," he said.
He acknowledged after yesterday's pro-am that he hooked a couple of drives because he still hasn't overcome the mental obstacle of wondering whether his next big swing will bring back the searing pain and back spasms that made him contemplate the end of his competitive golf career.
"You're waiting for it to go out," Trevino said. "Every time I hit the ball, I look to see where it's going, and then I'm in awe that I don't feel anything. I hit a couple of ugly hooks today because I was thinking about it, but I've got to try to go full out. I'm not going to play scared."
Trevino has never played scared in his life. He burst into the national spotlight with a victory in the 1968 U.S. Open and became an instant media darling with his quick wit and inspiring story. He bridged golf's cultural and economic divides a generation before Tiger Woods would become the sport's symbol of diversity.
Though he says he was never the victim of racial prejudice on the golf course, Trevino does lament the end of caddie programs that helped him and many minority golfers learn the game and ascend to the PGA Tour.
"I think there were more minorities playing on the tour when I was playing than there are now," he said, "and I think that's because of the end of the caddie program. That's how we were able to learn the game. Now we're trying to do that with the `First Tee' program, but the game is getting away from caddies.
"Everyone is using carts now. I hate carts."
We'll close here with one of Trevino's famous quotes, which should bring a small measure of comfort to our ego-bruised NFL team:
"In the game of life, it's a good idea to have a few early losses, which relieve you of the pressure of trying to maintain an undefeated season."