The last attempt Graham DeLaet made at playing on the PGA Tour lasted only a few swings. He didn’t even make it to the first tee.
While warming up on the range at Torrey Pines ahead of the Farmers Insurance Open in January, one swing dropped the 38-year-old to his knees as pain surged through his back.
Five tournaments into his return to play, the back pain that forced him to miss the better part of two seasons had returned, putting him back on to the shelf.
After another long period of rest and rehab, DeLaet is set to give it a try. Again. He’ll tee it up at the Safeway Open starting Sept. 10, the first event of the 2020-21 season.
“I feel like I’m good enough to give it a try,” DeLaet said from his home in Boise, Idaho. “I can’t keep sitting around doing nothing.”
If that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of a guy who feels completely healed it’s because the Weyburn, Sask., product isn’t 100 per cent and never will be.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to get much better,” he stated of his back that has been through two microdiscectomies and a stem cell procedure. “I’ve accepted that.”
DeLaet has been playing golf at home and can manage 18 holes just fine. Making swings is not the main issue; being on his feet for four hours is the problem. As he spends more and more time upright, his back tightens up. He loses range of motion and swing speed. It’s not sharp pain that he feels but rather aches and soreness.
“I feel like an old man,” he chuckled.
Going from a round with his buddies in a cart to playing four rounds on the PGA Tour and doing that for two, three or four weeks consecutively will be a big step. Still, DeLaet wants to try and see what he can achieve.
In his prime, DeLaet was one of the best ball-strikers in golf. From tee to green, he could hit the ball as pure as anyone ever has.
One of the more remarkable displays of his ball-striking came at the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, where he came close to a two-hole miracle, lipping out his tee shot on the drivable par-4 14th and then putting his ball to within an inch on the par-3 15th. A few wobbles either way and he could have recorded back-to-back aces.
During his career on the PGA Tour, he has earned more than $11 million. He’s also represented Canada at the Olympics and played for the International Team in the Presidents Cup. It’s hard not to think of what a healthy DeLaet might have achieved and extraordinary to see what he has managed with his physical limitations.
DeLaet will return on a major medical exemption and will have 24 tournaments to earn 266 FedEx Cup points to retain his status. He played five of those starts earlier this season but was allowed to reset owing to the pandemic shutdown.
Getting back out on tour is about more than just shooting a number. It’s about re-connecting with his friends and enjoying the atmosphere of tour life that has been a part of who he is for a long time.
“The longer I sit here, the more it fades further and further away,” DeLaet said. “I miss being a professional golfer.”
After all the surgeries and procedures, all the time getting physio treatment before and after rounds, and all the pain he’s endured, he knows that there may not be many more opportunities to play professional golf. He’s accepted that it simply may not work out.
“When my back is really bad, it crosses my mind,” DeLaet admitted. “When it’s good, I don’t think about it.
“If it’s not meant to be then we’ll look at what’s next.”