Davis Love III back in the swing of it

Davis Love III fought off the temptation to return earlier from back surgery. Now he's ready, though. Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- A back that bothered him for the better part of a decade finally got the best of Davis Love III. Surgery had been in the back of his mind for years, but going under the knife is only routine if somebody else is enduring it.

So the fact that Love is returning to golf after nearly three months away at a tournament he's not missed since the mid-1980s says something about the fragility of golfers and yet his own durability.

Love, who turned 49 last month, is playing in The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass for the 28th straight year, a run that goes back to his first try in 1986, when he tied for 14th.

"It's hard to stay competitive that long,'' said Love, who counts two Players titles among his 20 PGA Tour wins. "If I started back over again, I tell you in 2013 there is no way I'd make 28 in a row. It's too competitive now.

"One, it means you're old, and two, it means you've stayed pretty competitive. I'm hoping after this and the hard work I've put in, it's just going to get better for a while.''

The Players Championship, which boasts 46 of the top 50 in the world, indeed does require players to remain competitive. Love's victories in 1992 and 2003 do not mean a lifelong invitation; a top-125 finish on the previous year's money list has always assured entry, something Love has never failed to do.

But he's way behind this year after having to withdraw from the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February. The pain in his back, which affected strength in his left arm, had become too much. It is something that plagued him for years.

The 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team captain actually had several high finishes last fall after the Americans' excruciating loss to Europe, bidding for his first victory since 2008 late last year.

And with high hopes early in 2013, he simply could not keep going.

"I was at that point in Phoenix where I was very frustrated mentally,'' he said. "I knew physically I couldn't do it … I was grinding away and there was no reason to be doing it.

"So I just went ahead and I did it. I literally woke up after surgery and I knew I was fine. I felt so much better. The pain was gone. The tingly (feeling) was almost gone in my fingers, and since then all it's been is trying to get my arm strength back, and that's been a longer process than I'd like, but my therapists think I'm ahead of schedule, so I'm excited.''

To put it in simple terms, Love had a two-level disk fusion. He began putting and chipping fairly quickly after surgery and was able to start hitting balls eight weeks later. He's now been playing full 18-hole rounds for a month, and he thought about coming back a few weeks ago at the RBC Heritage -- where he's won five times -- but decided to wait.

TPC Sawgrass is not a great place to ease back into golf, but Love is just glad to be back.

"I'm excited to be here, I'm excited to be on the golf course, I'm excited to continue that streak,'' Love said. "Obviously it was a big point in the schedule that I don't want to miss. I obviously wanted to play before this, but I'm glad to be back on the golf course, and Lord willing, continue this streak of feeling well for the rest of the week.''