(Reuters) - A year after back surgery almost entirely wiped out his 2011 campaign, pain-free Canadian Graham DeLaet made a near-perfect start to his 2012 season in Thursday's opening round of the Sony Open in Hawaii.
The 29-year-old from Saskatchewan took advantage of surprisingly benign conditions at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, firing a seven-under-par 63 to surge into a two-shot lead.
DeLaet, who competed in only four events last year, recorded six birdies, a chip-in for eagle and a lone bogey to set a sizzling pace in the PGA Tour's first full-field event of the season.
"I'm just so excited to be back out," a smiling DeLaet told reporters. "Just being in Hawaii, period, is a great way to start the year and to come out and fire a nice round in the opening round was great."
South Korean KJ Choi, the 2008 Sony Open champion who has always enjoyed playing at Waialae, carded a 65 to finish level with Swede Carl Pettersson and American Kyle Reifers.
American world number five Steve Stricker, who clinched the PGA Tour's season-opening Tournament of Champions at Kapalua on Monday, also made a strong start with a 66.
Asked to assess his all-round fitness, DeLaet replied: "I'm feeling great. I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent, but better than three years ago, even before the real bad injury.
"There was times (after the surgery) when I didn't know if I was going to be able to play (again). I was in a pretty bad place mentally and physically, but it's just nice to be back
"I had a good season my rookie campaign (in 2010), and then it was all basically just taken away. And I realise now how fortunate we are to be playing golf for a living. My whole attitude is definitely better."
DeLaet had surgery on his lower back on January 3 last year and returned to competition in June before lingering pain forced him to abort his season after playing just two events apiece on the PGA Tour and its feeder Nationwide Tour.
He is competing on the 2012 PGA Tour in the major medical extension category and has 26 events to earn a total of $657,694 to secure his card for 2013.
"I really think that if I can just go out and play my game here for the next five or six months, I can make it happen," said DeLaet, a three-times winner on the Canadian Professional Golf Tour.
Stricker, mentally and physically fatigued after his impressive victory on the hilly terrain at the Kapalua Resort, was delighted with his first-round 66.
"It's just a quick turnaround from last week and it's a difficult course that we walked last week," the 44-year-old said. "And when you're in contention trying to win, the mental aspect of it is tougher too.
"But I rested up the last couple of days pretty much and I felt a little better out there today."
Of the other big names competing at Waialae, U.S. PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley opened with a 67 while U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III carded a 70.
American Mark Wilson, who won last year's Sony Open by two shots, launched his title defense with a five-bogey 73.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue/Patrick Johnston)