In the third round of the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Golf Club, Graham DeLaet stepped on to the par-3 13th hole and hit a crisp iron that flew at the pin, rolled past the cup, and stopped four inches from the hole, narrowly missing a hole-in-one. After tapping in, he went to the par-4 14th tee and again drilled his tee shot precisely towards the green. It landed on the front, rolled up to the pin and bounced off, just missing the exceptionally rare one on a par 4.
Two swings, two near-perfect shots, both coming from a guy who could barely walk due to the pain searing through his back.
In so many ways, this epitomizes the career of DeLaet, one of Canada’s greatest golfers and almost certainly, its toughest.
This week, DeLaet finally succumbed to his ailing back and announced his retirement from the PGA Tour.
“Every part of me always wanted to keep playing and keep doing what I’m doing,” DeLaet stated. “I love the game. I love the competition and everything but every time I tried to ramp it up and get practicing again, I would just go backwards. It just got to the point where it wasn’t worth it because it was affecting my life with my family and things I wanted to do around the house with my kids and all that kind of stuff. So, eventually, after multiple decisions and a lot of tears, Ruby [his wife] and I came to the realization that it was probably just time to move on. ”
The 40-year-old has been battling his wonky back since he was 15. When it was good enough to let him play, he could hit a ball with such precision that it would make a unique sound coming off the clubface, a crisp click that would send the ball off like a bullet and turn heads on the driving range from his peers.
When it was bad, he would spend hours getting treatments before and after his rounds, relying on chiropractors and physiotherapists to bend him into some sort of shape that would allow him to tee it up. When the pain became too much, he endured back surgeries (he had a microdiscectomy long before Tiger Woods), stem cell treatments, cortisone shots, cryotherapy and, more recently, nerve ablations.
There were times when DeLaet didn’t hit a practice shot or even walk the course before the tournament started and could barely navigate any sort of slope without nearly falling to his knees. That was the case at that 2017 PGA Championship. Yet, somehow, he finished tied for seventh that week.
“It was just mentally so tough because I don’t really know anything different,” DeLaet said. “I’ve been a professional golfer my whole life and I’ve been a golfer since I was 10 years old. I felt like I was giving up and I have never given up on anything and that was kind of the heart that was the last step, was getting through the mental hurdle of ‘Okay, you’re not going to be a tour player anymore. You’re just going to be a regular, quote unquote, guy in society. ‘”
It would be easy to look back and consider what might have been had DeLaet’s back not been so troublesome. But that would overlook his lengthy list of remarkable achievements.
He earned more than $ 11 million in 186 events on the PGA Tour, finishing inside the top 10 33 times. He was just the second Canadian, after Mike Weir, to play on the International team at the Presidents Cup, logging a record of 3-1-1 in 2013. He also represented Canada in several the World Cups and, in 2016, went to the Olympics in Rio where golf returned to the Games after a long absence.
“He played hard when he did play,” said David Hearn, DeLaet’s teammate at the Olympics. “He left everything out on the course, gave 110 percent even though he may have been hurting. He was just an amazing ball-striker too. He was great to watch. ”
“I admired him when I was just starting out here,” said fellow Canadian PGA Tour pro Corey Conners. “He was a guy you looked up to. He was a lot of fun to be around, and his swing was just so pure. ”
Indeed, it was. He garnered a lot of attention for his accuracy off the tee and into the greens, and many of his peers were envious of the swing that produced them.
“His swing is so simple and so effective,” remarked Derek Ingram, head coach of Golf Canada’s men’s team. “There are guys who tried hard to swing like he does and it’s just all natural to him.”
DeLaet’s road to the PGA Tour is a remarkable one. He grew up in Weyburn, Sask., Where there was just one golf course, a serviceable layout that wasn’t much of a challenge, but it was the starting ground.
“Looking back at the time, I didn’t know any different,” he said of the course. “So, I made the best of what I had all the way along. We had a six-month golf season, and the golf course was really only in good shape for about three of those months. ”
There was a range with some well-used balls, and a chipping and putting area that was a bit rough but allowed him to practice.
From this start, his talent grew rapidly. He was good enough in amateur play to earn a scholarship to Boise State, and in 2005 and ’06, he was a member of the Canadian national amateur team.
After turning pro, he grooved his game on the Canadian Tour, winning three events in two years. In 2009, he made it through the PGA Tour’s arduous Qualifying School, finishing tied for eighth. From that point on, DeLaet never lost his card, a testament to his perseverance.
“Making the PGA Tour was something, if you’d asked me when I was 20 years old, I probably wouldn’t have thought that was a reasonable thing that I would accomplish,” said DeLaet. “But never losing my card, I think it was pretty big. Because it’s not easy, especially your first year out there and then playing hurt and I played minimal schedules pretty much my whole career. So, never losing my card is like one that I can really hang my hat on. ”
As the years went on, he racked up dozens of top-10 finishes, coming close numerous times to getting that first win. He rose as high as 26th on the Official World Golf Ranking and was named to the 2013 Presidents Cup, an event where his exuberance was on full display. He ended two matches – singles against Jordan Spieth and a foursomes match taking on Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley – by holing shots from off the green.
“I had a great partner in Jason Day, who is one of the top players in the world,” DeLaet recalled. “From an actual golf standpoint, that’s probably the most memorable thing, I guess. Holing that bunker shot against Jordan to win two up on 18 and holing the little pitch shot, which ended up halving the match against Phil and Keegan, those are ingrained in my memories and will never leave. I can almost see it like a video on my head still. ”
Three years later, DeLaet marched into the Olympic Stadium in Rio wearing Canadian colors. It was golf’s return to the Games after sitting out since 1904. Since Canada was the defending champion, with Toronto’s George S. Lyon winning gold 112 years earlier, DeLaet was chosen to hit the opening tee shot in the competition. He eventually ended up 20th.
In addition to golf, there is also a charitable side to DeLaet’s career. For years, he hosted the Graham Slam in his home province of Saskatchewan and, later, in his adopted home of Boise. It was a huge golf event and party, something on which he and his wife Ruby worked hard. Over the years, the event raised close to $ 2 million to support the health and wellness of children.
As for the next chapter, DeLaet is still thinking about that. He has joined TSN as an analyst for his coverage of major golf events and has quickly proven himself as an adept in front of a microphone as he was with a golf club. “That’s good work in small doses,” he said.
“The main thing for me is to be able to be home and spend time with my kids,” he said of his six-year-old twins Roscoe and Lyla. “I don’t want to have like a full-time job where I’m working 20 or 30 weeks a year and traveling. Because I’ve done that. And it was great, but my family’s more important. ”
He’ll still play golf, too, although these days it will be for fun, and he’ll take a cart. There’s no looking back for DeLaet. As he’s always done, he’ll forge ahead into his next adventure with the positivity and determination that made his golfing career such a success.