Graham DeLaet has never been happier to be on the PGA Tour, and it showed Thursday in the Sony Open.
One year after back surgery that made him wonder if he could ever play golf again, DeLaet chipped in for eagle and twice holed 35-foot birdie putts for a 7-under 63 that gave the Canadian a two-shot lead.
Carl Pettersson and former Sony Open champion K.J. Choi were among those at 65, while Kapalua winner Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson and Bud Cauley were among those at 66.
"I'm just so excited to be back out," DeLaet said. "I had a good season my rookie campaign, and then it was all basically just taken away. And I realize now how fortunate we are to be playing golf for a living. My whole attitude is definitely better."
For Stricker, a minor adjustment was in order.
He is trying to become the first player since Ernie Els in 2003 to sweep the Hawaii events, and Stricker was noticeably tired during his pro-am Wednesday, and parts of the opening round.
Part of that was a Monday finish on Maui. He took the day off Tuesday, and he couldn't take three steps Wednesday without dozens of players congratulating him.
"A nice problem to have," Stricker said.
He picked up four birdies on the back nine, though, and was right in the hunt.
"I was a little sluggish at times. I'm still excited from last week," he said. "You turn around and you're right back in the competition. You've got to be focused. And I was, for the most part."
Cauley, who last year became the sixth player to go from college to the PGA Tour without Q-School, didn't show any signs of rust from having not played in nearly two months. He ran off four straight birdies around the turn until he stalled, then dropped a shot on the 17th and missed a birdie opportunity on the 18th when he tried to hit fairway metal out of a bunker and topped his shot.
"I did a lot of things right," he said. "I did a lot of things I was doing last summer."
Thursday was a gentle start of the season in the first full-field tournament of the year on the PGA Tour, with the ocean breeze barely strong enough to move fronds on the palm trees that line the fairways. Sixty-three players in the 144-man field broke par, including Oahu native Tadd Fujikawa, given a late sponsor exemption.
DeLaet surged to the top of the leaderboard when he chipped in from just short of the green on the par-5 ninth, then holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the 10th and hit his approach to 6 feet on the 12th for another birdie. He took the outright lead with birdies on the last two holes, getting up-and-down from just short of the green on the par-5 18th.
At this time a year ago, he was a week removed from surgery on his lower back, which included shaving part of his disk to keep it from pressing against a nerve. The Sony Open offers pleasant scenery on TV, but he couldn't stand to watch.
"It took me a couple of months before I could even watch golf," he said.
The injury was nothing new, first suffered when DeLaet was playing hockey as a junior. His lower back would give him fits, and then the pain would subside. Toward the end of his rookie season in 2010 -- he finished 100th on the money list to easily keep his card -- it got so bad that he couldn't sit for more than a few seconds.
Surgery took care of the pain, and DeLaet tried to return in the summer in the two tournaments sandwiched around the U.S. Open. His next start was supposed to be the AT&T National at Aronimink, but after playing a few holes before the Wednesday pro-am, he realized he was trying to get back too soon.
"I think I wanted to be there so bad that I felt that I was better physically than I actually was," DeLaet said. "I just knew that it's hard enough to compete out here when you're healthy, and I just knew that I wasn't in good enough shape to compete."
For the moment, he feels great.
It wasn't windy enough for Choi's tastes -- he practices in blustery conditions all the time at home in Dallas -- and while he was still tired from a week at Kapalua, he was pleased to start with a 65. Ditto for Pettersson, who worked harder than usual in the offseason by playing golf just about every day in North Carolina.
"I took one week off," Pettersson said. "I work hard. A lot of people think when you're overweight, you're lazy. I don't do much gym work. I did do some stretching. I worked with a physio who stretched me three times a week, and I worked hard on my game."
Did he miss any meals? No.
"I haven't lost any weight," he said. "But I'm more flexible."
The most sterling debut belonged to Harris English, the Georgia star playing in his first PGA Tour event. English won a Nationwide Tour event as an amateur, then barely broke a sweat in the final two stages of Q-School to get his card. And in his first round, he was atop the leaderboard at 6 under.
But he went long on the 14th green to make bogey, and then was too delicate with a bunker shot on the 15th and left it in the sand, leading to a double bogey. With a birdie on the final hole, he settled for a 67, still not a bad start.
Stephen Ames had one of the better turnarounds. He has been in Hawaii for his annual winter vacation, playing the Bay Course at Kapalua during the Tournament of Champions on the Plantation Course. But when he got to Waialae, he was 3 over through eight holes.
Ames birdied six of the next nine holes and posted a 67.
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