Tiger Woods and Graham DeLaet wouldn’t seem to have much in common. And for the most part, they don’t, save for one random similarity: Both have undergone microdiscectomy surgery on their respective backs—twice.
Wait, let’s make that two similarities: Both are also playing golf again.
While Woods’ return to form has taken shape incredibly over the last 21 months, and continued on Monday in Japan with a record-tying 82nd career PGA Tour victory, DeLaet’s comeback from a debilitating injury is just beginning.
Earlier this month at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, DeLaet made his first start on tour in 714 days. The Canadian was rusty, unsure of what to expect and missed the cut. At the same time, he took great satisfaction in being there. A week later, at the Houston Open, DeLaet found himself getting emotional on his way from the scoring trailer to the clubhouse after the second round.
He had made the cut on the number, thanks to two birdies over his final four holes and a deft par save after missing the green on the par-3 ninth and rolling in a nervy seven-footer.
“It wasn’t a top 10, or being in contention, but it was something I could check off the list,” said DeLaet, who finished T-70. “If I had missed the cut, more doubt would have crept in. Instead, this was a little boost of confidence.”
This week, he’ll tee it up again in search of more, at the inaugural Bermuda Championship. Playing on a major medical extension, DeLaet has 24 events to accumulate 266 FedEx Cup points, which, combined with the 110 points he grabbed before his injury early in the 2017-’18 season, would equal the points earned by the 125th player from that year. Doing so would let him keep his card for the 2020-’21 season.
With effectively a full-season’s schedule at DeLaet’s disposal, it’s an achievement that’s plenty doable—in his last full year on tour, he finished 76th in the standings with 650 points.
Back to Houston. Barely making the cut generally isn’t the stuff of tears, especially for a 37-year-old veteran whose career includes an appearance in a Presidents Cup, a chance to compete in the Olympics, a spot inside the top 30 in the Official World Golf Ranking and more than $11 million in prize money (the only thing missing is a PGA Tour win). But to understand why the man with the most recognizable beard on tour got so misty-eyed, you have to understand the depths to which he fell.
DeLaet had missed the last two years after undergoing a stem-cell injection in December 2017 that ultimately didn’t help regenerate the L4-L5 discs in his back. He followed that procedure with a second microdiscectomy in August 2018 (his first came in 2011). And though he didn’t end up needing the medical Hail Mary of a spinal fusion the way Woods did, there was a point when DeLaet thought returning to the game might not be an option.
In terms of pain, there were occasions when DeLaet was essentially bed-ridden for two or three weeks at a time. He never knew when it would come, either. One time, he was picking up his two young kids’ toys around the house and threw his back out just from that mundane exercise.
“Some days I was just stiff and sore and felt like an old man,” he said. “Other days the pain was acute.”
The mental strain had its ups and downs, too. Day to day, DeLaet felt mostly OK. But when there were repeated setbacks, he wondered if all he was putting himself through was worth it.
“It was such a roller coaster,” DeLaet said. “All the worst-case scenarios go through your head. I would think, Do I want to keep chasing this?
“I was OK at the time to live a normal life. I even thought about writing a retirement letter.”
Part of DeLaet’s motivation to press on were his kids, 3-year-old twins Roscoe and Lyla. Rather than them always asking when he was going to the doctor’s office next, he wanted them to be old enough to appreciate what he has done in his career.
DeLaet found inspiration elsewhere, too—from Woods’ victory at the Masters this past April, to his good friend Kevin Chappell shooting 59 at The Greenbrier in September. Though DeLaet didn’t watch much golf while injured, he did start to miss the game.
Once playing again, there were other obstacles to overcome. DeLaet can’t endlessly beat balls on the range, instead needing to limit his practice schedule. During tournament weeks, the most he can manage are nine holes on a Monday, another nine on Tuesday and a light day of practice on Wednesday.
Then there was his first start in Las Vegas, when DeLaet accidentally set his alarm clock to 2:45 a.m. on the eve of the first round. He bogeyed four of his first five holes, and on the ninth, he went to step into a shot and felt a twinge in his back. It went away after about five seconds, but on a few occasions he needed to stretch between shots.
DeLaet also has had to make a few minor changes to his swing to take pressure off his back. A narrower stance has helped generate more rotation, something that was problematic at times even before getting injured. A flared right toe keeps his back from taking over.
Without a swing coach for the entirety of his career, DeLaet still managed to become one of the game’s best ball-strikers in his prime. Since his return, he’s solicited help from veteran PGA Tour fitness consultant Dr. Craig Davies, whom he has worked with since 2012 after undergoing his first microdiscectomy the year before.
“I’ve learned a lot about how the body moves, how it changes,” DeLaet said. “If I had to rebuild my swing, I’m not sure I would have come back.”
DeLaet is glad he did, though. He’s also learning another mantra that Woods has often espoused.
Said DeLaet: “It’s a process.”