Not long ago, Graham DeLaet wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to play golf again, let alone professionally with the world’s best. Almost two years after having a back surgery that saved his career, DeLaet earned nearly $3 million in prize money in the 2013 season and qualified for the Tour Championship, not to mention earn a spot on the Presidents Cup International team.
“Literally, there was a time I didn’t think I was going to play golf again and not just that, live a normal life,” said DeLaet a few weeks ago in Atlanta. “It was pretty scary. To be here (at the Tour Championship) and to qualify for the Presidents Cup, it’s pretty unbelievable.”
During the Fall Series in 2010, it was becoming progressively more difficult for DeLaet to play through the pain caused by the herniated disk (L-5, S-1) in his back. For about two months near the end of that year, the pain was so severe that DeLaet spent most of the time in the recline position — no joke — either playing video games (Battlefield) or laying on the floor with his feet propped up on the couch as he iced his back.
“I couldn’t sit down for more than ten seconds,” said DeLaet in January 2012 at the Sony Open, his first start on the PGA Tour since June 2011. “I couldn’t even stand up long enough to eat a full meal standing up.”
DeLaet was resistant to surgery, but eventually it became his only option.
“It came down to the only choice I really had was to have the surgery,” DeLaet recalled. “I tried kind of everything and nothing was really working…We started looking into surgery.”
In January 2011, he had a microdiscectomy, the surgical removal of herniated disk material that was pinching the nerve.
“I remember waking up from my surgery and they wanted me to walk one lap of the hospital and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I just got out of surgery,'” DeLaet recalled. “And they said, ‘No, that’s what you have to do.’ From there, it was walking one block and adding a bit each day until I was walking four to five miles a day.”
DeLaet tried to make his comeback in June 2011, only six months after his surgery, and quickly realized he wasn’t ready.
“I went back and started playing halfway through the year last year,” said DeLaet at the 2012 Sony Open. “You know, just mentally I think I wanted to be out there so bad that I kind of tricked myself into thinking that I was good enough, but I just wasn’t quite in the shape that I needed to be in and I was still in quite a bit of pain.”
After getting advice from several players who had also endured similar injuries, he took a step back and sat out the rest of 2011.
At the first full-field event of the 2012 season, the Sony Open, DeLaet opened with a 63, and while he didn’t score quite as low the rest of the week, he finished in a respectable tie for 29th. Besides, he was just happy to be playing golf again.
“There was times I didn’t really honestly know whether I was going to be able to play golf again, and then to come back first event of the year and play like that, it couldn’t have worked out any better for me,” said DeLaet at the time.
Although he’s had his breakout year this season, DeLaet’s back still isn’t 100% and he estimated there were around 10-20 rounds the past two seasons where it’s affected his ballstriking — Which, mind you, is still one of the best on Tour.
“It’s not pain, my body just isn’t moving correctly,” he explained. “I still think it’s slowly improving, which is promising.”
So, where does he go from here? Well, he wants to keep reaching his goals. When he started the 2012 season, he said he wasn’t even sure he’d keep his card and after he achieved that, he raised the bar.
“Coming into this year, I expected more of myself, whether I got here or not, I wanted to at least come close. It’s been a great year and I achieved some goals, but I still have a ways to go. Playing in the Masters has been a dream of mine since I was 12 years old.”
Now, DeLaet, the Great New Canadian Hope, is about to make his Presidents Cup debut, playing with Australia’s Jason Day in Match 1 against Americans Hunter Mahan and Brandt Snedeker in Thursday’s four-ball.
“Making the Presidents Cup was probably the proudest moment of my golfing career,” said DeLaet a few weeks ago at the Tour Championship. “Being out here (at East Lake) is awesome because you’re playing with the best in the world on the best Tour in the world, and I obviously played well during the Playoffs, but I wasn’t that far outside coming in, either. It was a great achievement to get (to the Tour Championship.”
DeLaet is the first Canadian to compete in the Presidents Cup since Mike Weir in 2009, and he was able to pick the brain of his fellow Canadian and the golfing pride of their country.
“(Weir) was just kind of was telling me things, what to expect, what things caught him off guard maybe the first time he played, said DeLaet on Tuesday.
“The main thing he told me was to play my own game, not to hit any hero shots. His main advice was to try to feel like you are in the hole, and not give any holes away. That is going to be my goal here. Then controlling your emotions is going to be huge. That’s the one thing I don’t really know to expect quite yet, because I’ve never teed it up in these.”
DeLaet, who is currently ranked a career-best 32nd in the world, is already quite the hero for his long, successful, and most of all, inspiring, battle back. Oh, Canada!