JACKSON, Miss.—The full Canadian lumberjack beard made Graham DeLaet one of the PGA Tour’s most recognizable golfers last summer. If golf had rankings for facial hair, DeLaet was the hands-down world No. 1.
The cool beard was gone when he competed for Canada at the Rio Summer Olympics, where he finished 20th, and he’s still sporting a fresh face here this week at the Sanderson Farms Championship. Friday, he bogeyed the final hole at Country Club of Jackson to shoot 69 and enter the weekend at 9 under par, tied with Brandon Hagy for the lead with the field’s afternoon wave yet to play.
He opened the tournament with four straight birdies Thursday, shooting 66, and looks once more like the player many golf observers expected to evolve into a major winner a few years ago. He’s 34, but hasn’t managed a win since he came out in 2010. More important, he looks happy. That isn’t always easy to do after a bogey on the final hole. That happened on Friday after he carded a 5 on the ninth hole, a par 4 that doesn’t set up well for him. He can’t carry the fairway bunker with his driver, so he opted to hit 3-wood off the tee instead. “That didn’t work too well, either,” he joked.
DeLaet considered trying to chip out of the Bermuda rough but thought he could get an 8-iron into the greenside bunker, where he’d have a decent chance of getting up and down to save par. To borrow his words, that didn’t work out too well, either. It barely got airborne before nose-diving back into the rough.
“I told my caddie, I didn’t even top that,” DeLaet said, laughing. “I felt like I made good contact but it still came out with topspin and went back into the ground.”
So it was a bogey. Maybe the bad break evened out for the good break he had at the eighth hole, a long par-3. The pin was tucked on the left side, not really one to go at. DeLaet said he didn’t intend to shoot at the pin but he pulled his 5-iron and it ended up eight feet from the hole. He made the birdie putt.
“I gave myself a lot of chances and took advantage of a majority of them,” he said. “I played well and made some good putts.” His play is good news for Canadian fans who are pulling for him to become the country’s next great player. A lot of golfers are on his side, too, because they can relate to the chipping problems that caused him to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament last summer and take all of June off.
Nobody in golf likes to say that y-word because of the fear that it might be contagious. DeLaet has been loath to discuss the topic.
He fought it off well enough in Rio to get into contention for a medal. He fired an opening 66 that left him tied for second and was still in the medal picture midway through the third round. He was four shots off the lead in Rio until he had some incidents on the greens. DeLaet three-putted the 14th and 15th holes and at the short 16th hole, drove it within 20 yards of the green. Wary of his chipping problems, he putted the ball instead but it drifted right, went off the green and into a bunker. He needed two tries to escape the sand, then made a putt to save bogey. A drive into a fairway bunker at the last hole led to another bogey. That ended any dream of a Canadian Olympic medal. After the round, DeLaet was so frustrated and upset by what happened that he blew past the media corral without speaking to anyone, against Olympic Committee guidelines. Looking back months later, though, DeLaet remembered the good times in Rio.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was a special opportunity to represent my country. To play for 35 million people instead of yourself and your family or for FedEx Cup points, it was really neat. To see all the athletes and how much the Olympics means to them, it was a really cool event. I hope to make it Tokyo in 2020.”
DeLaet walked in the Opening Ceremony but left after the final round of golf and did not attend the Closing Ceremonies. He turned spectator and watched some other events. Asked if he went clubbing in Rio with swimmer Ryan Lochte, he laughed and answered firmly, “No, I didn’t go anywhere near that guy.”
A radio interviewer after Friday’s round at the Sanderson Farms Championship tactfully asked about DeLaet’s short game. He said that he’s seeing improvement but added, “It’s a slower process than I thought it would be. Baby steps.”
With twin 11-month-olds, he ranks as an expert on baby steps.
Two media stops later, I asked if he figured out whether his chipping issues were related to technique or fatigue or something else. He answered with a forced smile, “It’s getting better, thanks,” and quickly excused himself, saying, “I gotta get lunch.”
All golfers understand and sympathize. When it comes to the y-word in golf, this rule prevails: Don’t ask, don’t tell.