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Weary Stricker opens with 66 3 off Sony Open lead

HONOLULU (AP)—Steve Stricker became a footnote in PGA Tour history bywinning comeback player of the year in consecutive seasons.

Coming back after a win?

That’s been a little more difficult.

Three days after winning on Maui at the Tournament of Champions, Strickerwas back to work. He did well Thursday in the Sony Open to open with a 4-under66 and finish three shots behind Graham DeLaet of Canada. What made itimpressive is that Stricker felt as if he were in a daze part of the time atWaialae Country Club.

“A little sluggish at times,” Stricker said.

That’s nothing new. In the seven previous times that he played the weekafter winning, the best he could manage was a tie for ninth in the Deutsche BankChampionship in 2007.

He won the John Deere Classic the last three years, flew across the Atlanticfor the British Open and has never been a factor. When he won the Northern TrustOpen at Riviera in 2010, he headed over to Arizona for the Match PlayChampionship and became only the second No. 1 seed to lose in the opening round.

This week’s trip was only a short hop over from a different island, but it’sno less taxing.

“I’m still excited from last week,” Stricker said. “You turn around andyou’re right back in the competition. You’ve got to be focused. And I was, forthe most part.”

The Plantation Course at Kapalua is a big walk, and Stricker said he waseven more drained from nearly losing five-shot leads on the last two days andfighting off the contenders. Winning itself always takes a toll, so Strickertook Tuesday off, then spent Wednesday in what he described as a pro-am that wascluttered with media requests, not to mention dozens of players stopping tocongratulate him.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” he said

But he’s back to work, now, and in the first full-field event of the PGATour season, feels as though he at least gave himself a chance to join Ernie Els in 2003 as the only players to sweep the Hawaii tournaments.

Walking toward the clubhouse, Stricker was approached by the Golf Channeland asked if he could come on the set for a few minutes. One of the producerssaid it wasn’t imperative, and Stricker—as if it were the hardest thing heever did in his life—said no.

After changing shoes in the locker room, and speaking briefly with a PGATour media official to provide quotes for the Honolulu newspapers, he made adetour on his way to the hotel so he could do the Golf Channel interview.

There’s one big advantage coming off a win, however.

“When you can win, it just boosts that confidence level way up theretoday,” Stricker said.

DeLaet didn’t have reason for a lot of confidence considering he had notplayed in any PGA Tour event in nearly seven months. His excitement level washard to match, though.

It was about this time a year ago when the Canadian’s lower back hurt somuch that he had major surgery, in which part of a disk was shaved off toalleviate pressure on a nerve. He thought there might be a chance he would neverplay again, this right after a rookie season in 2010 in which he finished arespectable 100th on the money list to easily keep his card.

“I’m just so excited to be back out,” DeLaet said. “I had a good seasonmy rookie campaign, and then it was all basically just taken away. And I realizenow how fortunate we are to be playing golf for a living. My whole attitude isdefinitely better.”

DeLaet surged to the top of the leaderboard when he chipped in from justshort of the green on the par-5 ninth, then holed a 35-foot birdie putt on the10th and hit his approach to 6 feet on the 12th for another birdie. He took theoutright lead with birdies on the last two holes, getting up-and-down from justshort of the green on the par-5 18th.

Carl Pettersson and former Sony Open champion K.J. Choi were among those at65, while Stricker was in the group at 66 with Webb Simpson and Bud Cauley .

Thursday was a gentle start of the season on the PGA Tour, with the oceanbreeze barely strong enough to move fronds on the palm trees that line thefairways. Sixty-three players in the 144-man field broke par, including Oahunative Tadd Fujikawa , who was given a late sponsor exemption.

Cauley, who last year became the sixth player to go from college to the PGATour without Q-school, didn’t show any signs of rust from having not played innearly two months. He ran off four straight birdies around the turn until hestalled, then dropped a shot on the 17th and missed a birdie opportunity on the18th 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 wasdoing last summer.”

DeLaet’s injury was nothing new, first suffered when he was playing hockeyas a junior. His lower back would give him fits, and then the pain wouldsubside. Toward the end of his rookie season in 2010, however, it got so badthat he couldn’t sit for more than a few seconds.

Surgery took care of the pain, and DeLaet tried to return in the summer inthe two tournaments sandwiched around the U.S. Open. His next start was supposedto be the AT&T National at Aronimink, but after playing a few holes before theWednesday 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 betterphysically than I actually was,” DeLaet said. “I just knew that it’s hardenough to compete out here when you’re healthy, and I just knew that I wasn’t ingood enough shape to compete.”

For the moment, he feels great.