OAKVILLE, Ont. — This was supposed to be Graham DeLaet's time to shine.
With an impressive rookie season on the PGA Tour under his belt and a wide open landscape in Canadian golf, the 29-year-old from Weyburn, Sask., seemed poised to step to the forefront of the sport in this country.
Instead, his 2011 season never even got off the ground. DeLaet had back surgery the first week of January and appears likely to finish the year having only played a handful of tournaments.
"When I'm feeling 100 per cent, I'm going to (return)," DeLaet said Monday in an interview. "I'm not going to do it any sooner than that."
He already got a small taste of what it's like to come back too soon, having entered three events in June before the soreness and stiffness returned.
There remains a possibility he might take part in the PGA Tour's Fall Series — four tournaments held in October following the playoffs — but it is far from certain. That was the best stretch of events DeLaet played as a rookie last season and allowed him to keep his fully exempt status.
It would be tough to let them pass by this year.
"I played well in the Fall Series last year so that part of me wants to get going," said DeLaet. "But at the same time, I had that feeling in June and I went out and played and it was just too early. The competitor inside me wants to go but I think you have step back and look at the big picture before you make any kind of commitments."
There is some reason for optimism. DeLaet's back has progressively started feeling better in recent weeks and he's found himself able to perform more challenging positions in bikram yoga — a form of exercise he plans to continue once the injury has healed.
He was also able to play a round of golf at Glen Abbey on Monday afternoon with the winner of a contest run by his sponsor Transitions Lenses.
In fact, DeLaet is averaging about three rounds per week and his back is holding up well.
"For the most part, it doesn't bother me," he said. "I'm not in any kind of pain on the golf course. Some days are better than others as far as my mobility.
"That's why I don't feel like I can compete a real high level yet."
It's important he doesn't return until he's ready to go up against the best players in the world. DeLaet plans to ask the Tour for a medical exemption that will give him 26 total tournaments in 2012 to earn the equivalent of 125th spot on the money list this year.
The back problems date back to an injury DeLaet suffered while playing hockey as a teenager. The pain became unbearable towards the end of last year, forcing him to have surgery to remove a portion of a herniated disc.
It was a scary period.
"There was a time in December, January and February — when I was in really bad pain and right after my surgery — when you think about the worst things," said DeLaet. "The worst thoughts cross your mind: 'Will I ever be able to play again? If I have children, will I ever be able to play with my kids?'
"All that kind of stuff crosses your mind. A lot of getting over injury is as much mental as it is physical."
The timing of the injury has been particularly frustrating.
DeLaet was the top Canadian money-earner on the PGA Tour in 2010 with a little more than US$950,000. Unfortunately, he didn't get a chance to build on that momentum.
"It's not even just last year, but I've been working at this since I was 16 or 17 years old," said DeLaet. "Then I finally get out there (on the PGA Tour), I have a successful year and then obviously I'm sidelined here this year.
"There's frustration, but at the same time, you've just got to look at the big picture and do what's right."
A number of fans have contacted DeLaet through his Twitter account ((at)grahamdelaet) and asked a variation of the same question: When will you be back on tour?
It's an answer he's still looking for himself.
"It's tough because you can't respond to everybody," said DeLaet. "I don't know when I'm going to be back playing yet so I can't really answer them accurately anyway."