Near the end of his rookie season in 2010, 29-year-old Canadian Graham DeLaet was suffering from an agonizing back injury — originally endured while playing hockey as a teenager — that was so painful he couldn’t even sit upright for more than ten seconds.
After exhausting other forms of treatment, DeLaet had surgery on January 3, 2011, which involved shaving off a piece of a herniated disk to alleviate a pinched nerve. Almost immediately, the procedure relieved much of his discomfort, but left him wondering if he’d make a full recovery and play golf again.
A year later, DeLaet, who isn’t quite 100% but above 90%, opened his first round of the 2012 season in style. He chipped in for eagle on No. 9 and rolled in six birdies, two of which he made in his last two holes at Waialae Country Club, on his way to shooting seven-under 63 to lead by two shots over Carl Pettersson, K.J. Choi and Kyle Reifers.
“I’m just so excited to be back out,” said DeLaet during his post-round presser. “I had a good season during my rookie campaign and then it was all basically taken away. And I realize how fortunate we are to be playing golf for a living and my whole attitude is definitely better. It’s changed and I’m a lot more positive because I’m just happy to be playing more than anything.”
He was in good form, too. Interestingly enough, he didn’t drive the ball that well, which is generally his strong suit. When I spoke with his fellow Tour pals Andres Gonzales and Chris Baryla, they raved about his strength and distance.
“He’s a ball of muscle,” said Gonzales on the phone Thursday morning. “He hits it freaking hard. He’s gotta be one of the longest guys on Tour.”
Baryla, also a Canadian, took it a step further, saying via text, “Graham flies the ball the longest of anyone with a classic swing…He’s the best driver of the golf ball on any Tour…that will come out this year with him healthy. He’s probably put on 15 (pounds) of muscle since the back surgery.”
“(Driving the ball) was actually the one thing that I did poorly,” said DeLaet, who played his golf at Boise State University and still resides in the area. “I was fortunate quite a few times that I hit it way left a couple times, way right once, and every time I had some sort of shot into the green, made birdie on one of those when I thought I was going to make bogey.”
Meanwhile, DeLaet was just excited to be healthy and playing golf again.
“There was times I didn’t really honestly know whether I was going to be able to play golf again, period, let alone be playing back out at this level,” said DeLaet, while walking from the 18th scoring area back to the clubhouse for his presser. “Then, to come back first event of the year and play like that, it couldn’t have worked out any better for me.”
For about two and a half months before the surgery, DeLaet couldn’t even sit or stand up to eat a full meal. He spent a lot of time playing video games and laying on the floor with his feet on the couch and ice on his back. There were times he’d wake up in the middle of the night with extremely painful cramps in his legs and sciatic pain — his wife Ruby would do her best to massage it out. It was so bad that she worried about leaving Graham alone for more than an hour because if he tripped or moved wrong, he could spasm out and be laid out without help.
Anyone who has suffered from injuries and endured chronic pain understands that it takes a toll on your state of mind. DeLaet was no exception.
“It’s funny because after his surgery, we were joking around back at home and he laughed, like really laughed,” Ruby told me. “I noticed because it was the first time I had heard him actually laugh — he had been in so much pain leading up to that point, where his mood was down. I didn’t realize how long it had been since he had even laughed. It was just kind of crazy.”
After experiencing success on the mini-tours, with multiple wins on the Canadian Tour and one in South Africa on the Sunshine Tour, DeLaet earned his card at Q-School for the 2010 season. As a rookie, he had a respectable year that included three top-tens and and eight top-25s, with his best finish T3 at the 2010 Shell Houston Open. During the Fall Series, he started experiencing extreme pain, but he was playing really well, so he just pressed on. He finished the year with $954,011 in winnings, ranking him No. 100 on the money list to keep his card.
When the season wrapped up, he was feeling progressively worse and worse. He finally came to terms that surgery was the only option. And it worked.
“Even at night before surgery he couldn’t sleep anywhere,” said Ruby. “We had four pillows piled up underneath his legs, and then we had something under his back, and then he had to sleep on his back lying there and he couldn’t move. Then, after surgery he was able to lay on his side and be more mobile…just a few days after, he started walking around the block and he walked a little bit further every day.”
DeLaet tried to make his comeback in the summer, playing in the FedEx St. Jude Classic and the Travelers Championship. At the AT&T National, it hit him that he had tricked himself into thinking he was ready and healthy enough to play, but he actually needed more time to mend.
“Just mentally I think I wanted to be out there so bad that I kind of tricked myself into thinking that I was healthy 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,” he said.
As competitors it’s common for golfers try to come back too soon (just ask Tiger Woods). Other players who had also suffered injuries, including Marc Turnesa, advised DeLaet, saying everyone returns to competition before they’re ready. DeLaet took a step back, re-evaluated and made the difficult but smart choice – he decided to take the rest of the year off.
“We never wanted to voice how scared we were,” said Ruby. “I think it was more just we would keep talking to ourselves until we would finally started believing it and got a little bit more realistic and started getting better and started getting stronger.
“He took a little bit of a confidence dip, when he decided to go back out and then it didn’t work out, so we had to change the plan and come back later. But the whole thing was a huge learning process, and there’s a lot of positives that came out of it.”
There are still three rounds of golf left, but it’s hard not to root for DeLaet, whose friends speak the world of him.
“GD is awesome,” said Baryla, “competitive to the bone, and a great guy to have a pint with and argue about hockey.”
I sense a theme here, but awesome is also the perfect word to describe DeLaet’s round.
(AP Photo/Marco Garcia)