delaet-graham-101022

Graham Delaet of Weyburn, Sask, had surgery Jan. 3 to repair a herniated disc in his back that hampered him last year. ((Steve Dykes/Getty Images))

Graham DeLaet is gearing up for his return to competitive golf.

The 29-year-old from Weyburn, Sask., has been forced to wait to return to action after a rookie PGA Tour season that exceeded expectations.

After winning almost a $1 million US and finishing 100th on the money list, many in the Canadian golf community were shocked to learn that DeLaet had finished the season, including two Top 10 showings that clinched his playing privileges for 2011 — with a serious back injury.

"I played four events without a practice round, playing the courses blind," DeLaet said of the physical limitations he faced during the Fall Finish.

"The only thing I had was to have my caddie go out and walk them [beforehand]. It was pretty brutal."

Par Four

— Tied course record (62) at Reno-Tahoe Open as PGA rookie

— 3 Canadian Tour wins and 1 win on Sunshine Tour (South Africa)

— Represented Canada in 2008 and 2009 World Cup

— Won 10 NCAA tournaments at Boise State

"The [McGladrey Classic] in Georgia, I was going to withdraw," he continued. "But I got around, really, only by popping about four Advil."

Physical issues aside, more amazing about DeLaet's performance was that he needed to squeeze inside the Top 125 on the money list from as far down as 129.

"I think [being hurt] made me focus more on [scoring] and then just to get to the physio trailer," he said.

DeLaet had surgery in early January and was on the shelf for months, including 60 days where he couldn't swing a club because of the depth of the incision.

Now back practicing and playing recreationally, DeLaet plans on teeing it up on the Nationwide Tour next week in Virginia.

"In many ways, I feel better than I did last year," he said. "But playing golf on your home course, with your buddies, is not the same thing [as tournament golf]."

DeLaet's 2010 season would have been a success all on its own, even if he hadn't been hurt.

Traditionally, it's difficult for first-year players, especially those, like DeLaet, who didn't apprentice on the developmental Nationwide Tour, to keep their cards.

Roughly a quarter of the players survive their first season and many of those only get by with conditional status. The more conventional path is to go back to the Nationwide Tour, a path fellow Canadian David Hearn is following this year with some measured success so far.

The road is generally rocky because the PGA Tour is not like the major-league team sports. Getting your card on the PGA Tour is more the equivalent to getting drafted or a training-camp invite in the NHL or MLB. There are no guarantees money will be coming in and, if you don't show you belong by cracking the Top 125 — or 150 for non-exempt status — you go back to the minor leagues.

'Always felt that I had played well'

Though DeLaet started the 2010 season with a relatively high priority ranking, having finished T8 at the 2009 Q School, getting tournament starts wasn't automatic. That all changed with an impressive T3 showing in Houston on Easter Sunday.

A couple of long-bomb putts put DeLaet in contention to grab a spot in a playoff until eventual winner Anthony Kim and Vaughn Taylor proved one shot better.

That showing stemmed the tide of five missed cuts that had seen DeLaet plummet down the money list after a decent start to his rookie season.

It was around the time of Houston that DeLaet finally felt he belonged on the PGA Tour.

"I think I missed about seven cuts by just a shot," DeLaet said of his 13 missed cuts in 2010. "I always felt that I had played well ... but out here, everybody you play with can shoot 61 on a given day or four rounds of 67.

"There were times I left the course after hitting it well and would look up and I would be tied for 31st."

'It could be tough'

DeLaet has the Memphis stop in two weeks pencilled in for his potential return to the big tour. If he's still a bit off after playing next week, he will stay on the Nationwide Tour for that week's tournament in Raleigh, N.C., to sharpen up.

The PGA Tour uses a complicated formula it calls medical extensions to determine how players returning from layoffs need to perform to retain their status. DeLaet's goal is to avoid using one in 2012 by instead finishing inside the Top 125.

"It could be tough," DeLaet said. "But all it takes is a couple weeks [of high finishes]."

So how does a young man, married just a few years, deal with suddenly having a several hundred thousand dollars (after taxes) at his disposal after grinding it out on the Canadian and South African tours?

Asked if it's true that the more money you have, the more you tend to spend, with little net difference in lifestyle aside from a few toys, DeLaet partially agreed.

"That's true," he said with a laugh. "But it's also nice to not have to worry about how you're going to pay for your cell [phone] bill, too."