Honolulu - An eagle and a birdie-birdie finish helped Canada's Graham DeLaet grab the first-round lead on Thursday in the $5.5 million Sony Open, the first full-field event of the PGA Tour season.
DeLaet, celebrating his return a year after back surgery that threatened to derail his career, carded a seven-under par 63 on the par-70 Waialae Country Club course.
He had a two-stroke lead over South Korean K.J. Choi, Sweden's Carl Pettersson and Kyle Reifers, who shared second on 65.
"I'm just so excited to be back out," said DeLaet, who had surgery just over a year ago to address pain from a herniated disk that stemmed from a youth ice hockey injury.
He had enjoyed a solid rookie campaign in 2010 but as the intermittent pain began to worsen he finally had to have surgery to relieve pressure on a nerve. In 2011 he played just two US PGA Tour events and two events on the Nationwide developmental tour.
"I had a good season my rookie campaign and then it was all basically just taken away," DeLaet said. "And I realize now how fortunate we are to be playing golf for a living. My whole attitude is definitely better."
He had plenty to be happy about on Thursday. He chipped in for an eagle from just off the green at the par-five ninth and drained 35-foot birdie putts en route to his 63.
The birdie-birdie finish gave the 29-year-old Saskatchewan native the outright lead.
Choi's five-under effort included six birdies and one bogey. He was pleased to get off to a strong start, following up on his eight-under 65 in the final round of the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua on Monday.
"I knew my body was good but the feel for the shots wasn’t really there," he said of his slow start at Kapalua. "But as the week went by, it caught up and I had more comfort."
This week, Choi said, the course is a straightforward test.
"You just attack it the way you see it," he said. "The wind, for me, I’m able to read the wind easier and I can control my iron shots better."
Steve Stricker, winner of the season-opening Tournament of Champions, was among a dozen players sharing fifth place on 66.
Stricker, who is trying to become the first player since South African Ernie Els in 2003 to win the Tournament of Champions and Sony Open, had four birdies on the back nine to put himself among the contenders.
After the Monday finish at Kapalua, Stricker looked a bit weary.
"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."
Leading first-round scores on Thursday in the PGA Tour's $5.5 million Sony Open (USA unless noted, par-70):
63 - Graham DeLaet (CAN)
65 - Carl Pettersson (SWE), K.J. Choi (KOR), Kyle Reifers
66 - Webb Simpson, Ken Duke, Colt Knost, Doug LaBelle, David Hearn (CAN), Pat Perez, Bud Cauley, Kyle Stanley, Steve Stricker, Will Claxton, Noh Seung-Yul (KOR), Matt Every
67 - Stephen Ames (CAN), Rory Sabbatini (RSA), Jhonattan Vegas (VEN)
68 - John Senden (AUS), Bae Sang-Moon (KOR)