This article first appeared in the November 3, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated.
""Now Momma Lou makes chocolate gravy; Lord, she is so nice /Poppa Jim pulled me aside and gave me some advice/ He said, 'Quit spending all your money on all those old skanks/Just put some in your pocket and put some in the bank.'"John Daly, "All My Exes Wear Rolexes"
Except for the part about winning the British Open, John Daly's life has always played out like a bad country song, with all the touchstones of the genre: the wrong women, battles with the bottle, squandered fortunes and a scrape with the law (to say nothing of the PGA Tour commissioner). In the beginningcirca 1991Daly's flaws contributed as much to his popularity as did the awesome drives he launched with his hyper-extended swing. On a Tour full of country-club types, Daly was raw and real, with problems you could relate to. (Well, some of us could relate to some of them.) But in the eight years since his last PGA Tour victory, Daly, 37, has regressed from contender to curiosity. Just when it seemed he had lost all his shock value, Daly has, over the last three months, gone on a self-destructive binge that has put his golf game and personal life in disarrayand his problems are far from over. " John Daly needs help," says a member of his inner circle. "The Tour feels that way. Everyone close to John feels that way."
Daly's tailspin began in July. On the 23rd his fourth wife, Sherrie, gave birth to John Patrick Daly II, a.k.a. Little John. He is Big John's third child, from as many mothers. Five days after the birth, Sherrie and her parentsAlvis Miller and his wife of 39 years, Billiewere indicted in a Mississippi federal court for allegedly laundering more than $1.2 million in illegal drug profits. Sherrie could face up to 20 years in prison. Daly may be an aspiring country music crooner, but Tammy Wynette he ain't. "I believe they're not guilty, and I'm standing 100 percent behind them," he told SI in late September. "Granted, if Sherrie is going to prison for 20 years, I'll have to divorce her."
Since his wife's arrest, Daly has been disqualified or has withdrawn from four of his seven Tour starts. At the 84 Lumber Classic, he started shaking uncontrollably and had to be carted off the course. At the Texas Open he raked in a missed putt while the ball was still moving and didn't report it to Tour officials until after he had signed his scorecardan automatic DQ. Afterward there were reports (denied by Daly) that he trashed the interior of his $1.4 million bus. "He's not really a golfer any longer," a Tour player said. "More like a freak show."
A week later at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, Daly six-putted a green, chasing after his ball and "hockey-sticking" it into the cup, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Once the game's biggest draw, Daly was dismissed as "sad" by tournament director Robert Morgan, who added, "If he continues the way he is, the John Daly persona is not going to be an attraction anymore."
In addition to the real problems Daly faces, he has had to deal with a torrent of rumors in recent months. Last weekend, the New Jersey wire service SportsTicker cited sources saying, incorrectly, that Daly had entered an alcohol rehab clinic on orders from PGA commissioner Tim Finchem. "I'm just frustrated that I'm having to defend myself on things that aren't even happening," Daly says. "It's been a joke."
In the wake of his wife's indictment, two of Daly's longtime associates called it quits. At the PGA Championship in August, Daly was fired by his caddie, Mick Peterson, who made it plain that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with Sherrie Daly. Donnie Crabtree, John's personal assistant and driver for 10 years and his closest friend since the first grade, quit a week later. "It's hard watching somebody that you love self-destruct," Crabtree says. "John can go weeks without drinking, but he's a binger. He'll drink and not eat, smoke three packs a day. He drinks Diet Cokes like they're going out of style. No rest, high stress, lots of caffeine, lots of nicotine. You add all those things together, and you get what's happened over the last six or seven weeks."
Asked if he thinks Dalywho denies any recent binge drinkinghas become a danger to himself or others, Crabtree says he doesn't consider his friend "consciously suicidal" but cites the belief of people in 12-step programs that you have to hit rock bottom before you can come back. "My fear with John is that his rock bottom might be something you don't come back from."
Early last month Daly thought he'd arrived at a simple solution for his latest round of problems: dump the wife. On Oct. 5, the day PGA senior vice president and chief of operations Henry Hughes called Daly to express concerns over his recent behavior, Daly instructed his attorney to file divorce papers in Memphis. Daly then flew to Seoul for the Korean Open, an Asian tour event that had ponied up an appearance fee for him. A world away from his troubles, Daly summoned one of the most stunning performances of his career, shooting a back-nine 32 on Sunday, Oct. 12, to win his first tournament in more than two years. The field was weak, and the course wasn't exactly Pebble Beach, but for Daly the victory was monumental. "Your adrenaline gets pumping when you have a chance to win," he says. "I was hitting my driver 30 or 40 yards farther than I normally do."
The day after the tournament Daly rested in a suite at the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino in Las Vegas. In a relaxed but subdued conversationone of several with SI over the past six weekshe said that his divorce would be governed by a prenuptial agreement that he and Sherrie signed in 2001. On various occasions, he said, he was physically and verbally abused by his wife in front of friends, family, other Tour players, the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish and, in one colorful incident, three strippers at a charity golf outing. He also claimed that although his wife had told him that she and her parents were targets of a federal investigation, she had not disclosed that it involved the laundering of drug profits. (Sherrie denies having known this herself.)
"It's cut and dried," Daly said. "She gets 50 grand, and that's it." He puffed on a cigarette and stared at a bowl of roses in the center of the table. "I wanted to make it work. It's embarrassing to have to go through another divorce. There's two beautiful children involved." He shook his head. "But I'm going to go insane if I don't get away from this woman."
The knot was tied two years ago in the wedding chapel at Bally's Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The bride wore a wedding gown. Daly wore jeans and a sport coat. After the ceremony the wedding party took an elevator up to his suite and celebrated. For the first time in years the planets seemed to be aligned for Daly. The day before the wedding he had won $850,000 playing slot machines, and he was cresting on a comeback that saw him rise from 507th to the top 50 in the World Ranking. "I really thought I had found a woman who was a lot of fun," he says of Sherrie. "I really thought I'd found the right woman."
The lovebirds had met during the 2001 FedEx St. Jude Classic, in Daly's adopted hometown of Memphis. He was engaged to another woman at the time, but after being introduced to Sherrie by mutual friends, John joked that he was going to marry her instead. Seven weeks later, to the accompaniment of slot-machine bells, John and Sherrie were wed.
With the benefit of hindsight, John concedes that he didn't know Sherrie well enough to exchange Christmas cards, much less conceive a child with her. Nine months earlier Sherrie had broken up with the father of her son Austin, who is now four. John probably wasn't looking beyond Sherrie's obvious attributes. At 27 she is a shapely, well-groomed blonde with a chatty air that can be disarming. She was a cheerleader at Collierville ( Tenn.) High and studied at St. Joseph's School of Nursing, although she didn't get a degree. In recent years she has worked sporadically as a commissioned car salesperson, mostly at the Auto Center, a used-car dealership in Collierville owned by her father, Alvis.
The indictment against Sherrie and her parents charges that Alvis Miller, through a series of cash transactions involving used cars and real estate, laundered illegal drug profits for three members of a domestic drug ring, all of whom pled guilty. The case focuses on 47 cash deposits ranging from $2,000 to $9,500just under the $10,000 level that must be reported to federal authoritiesmade by the Miller family over 33 months, all of them at two Collierville banks. Four of the deposits were made by Sherrie, which is why, unless she or her parents make a deal with prosecutors before their scheduled trial date of Nov. 17, she faces penalties ranging from probation to 20 years in prison if convicted.
"The whole thing is a joke," Sherrie says. "I borrowed money from my dad because my checking account was overdrawn. Yes, I made a $9,500 deposit.... This lady at the bank, she was a little old lady, she was like, 'Oooh, you don't want to deposit all that cash. You need to keep it under $10,000 or we'll have to fill out all those forms.' " Sherrie adds, "Now, this lady that told me that is eightysomething years old, and I don't think she remembers it."
Sherrie's lawyer, Kemper Durand, says his client may have made the deposits, "but our take is she was a flunky doing what she was told by her father." The indictments of Billie Miller and Sherrie, says Durand, are the government's way of pressuring Alvis to plead guilty. "This is what we call Southern gentleman justice. They're hoping the man will take the hit so his wife and daughter will get dismissed."
That approach may not work with Alvis, a voluble man of 60 with the blocklike physique and belligerent outlook of his son-in-law, John Daly. "I'm not scared," Alvis said three weeks ago, leaning back in his office chair at the Auto Center. "I'm not giving in to anybody, because I didn't do anything I thought was wrong. If we laundered any money, we certainly didn't know it." Miller characterized his business dealings with three of the drug-ring principals as favors for lifelong friends and said he had no idea they were involved in drug trafficking. "This has ruined my business," he complains. "I haven't sold a car in two months. People think I'm a drug dealer."
While they wait for the scales of justice to tip one way or the other, the Millersand, at times, Sherrie, Austin and baby Johnlive in a spacious four-bedroom house with swimming pool and gazebo on 35 acres of farmland at the edge of Collierville. Until the case is resolved, the feds have a lien on the house, the land and the Millers' bank accounts and used cars.
John Daly "is not in any way implicated," according to a highly placed government source. Nevertheless, it is Daly who has behaved like the beleaguered suspect, losing sleep, chain-smoking and confounding his nervous system with alcohol and caffeine. The loss of his beloved mother, Lou, who died last year of cancer, contributed to his personal and professional decline.
"Every month, before he can take a breath or miss a cut, he has to pay $20,000 [in child support and alimony]," Sherrie says, explaining some of the pressure Daly endures. "When you're not making any money, that comes pretty quick." Daly's ex-wives numbers 2 and 3 seem to rank ahead of the feds on Sherrie's don't-like list. "They live in Rancho Mirage and Orlando in very, very fine homes," she says. "Tile roof, the whole bit. They live large, and they don't even have to go to the mailbox to get their check. We wire it. All they have to do is spend it."
Daly, on the other hand, told SI that the principal cause of his anguish was wife number 4. Among other things, John claimed that Sherrie kept him in the dark about the scope of her legal troubles and then dismissed them as trivial when they emerged. "I had to find out from the newspaper," he said of the part of the federal indictment that involved the laundering of drug money. "I saw it in the Memphis paper, and that hurt me more than anything."
Crabtree supports Daly's claim that he was shocked when he read the news. "His jaw dropped," Crabtree says. "His face was in his hands. Because the headline, if I remember right, [called her] John Daly's wife. His name was the one that was up there."
In recent weeks, however, Daly has repeatedly defended the Millers. On his return from Korea he stood up for his wife again ("I believe she's been honest about that case," he said); praised her parents ("I love Alvis and Billie, they've been great to me"); praised Sherrie's parental skills ("She's always been a good mother"); and insisted that he wasn't divorcing her because of the charges. So...why?
"I couldn't deal with it anymore," Daly said in Las Vegas, tapping another cigarette out of his pack. "The things that she's done to me in front of people. I have let her beat the living s--- out of me... just poundin' on me with her fists." In Fayetteville, Ark., Daly said, he was schmoozing with singer Darius Rucker and other members of Hootie and the Blowfish on his bus when an angry Sherrie pushed him, and he tripped and fell against a counter, injuring his right shoulder. Another time, during a locker room card game in Florida, she smacked his head repeatedly with the buckle on a cap because he had autographed it for a female fan with the words "You were great last night!" The worst abuse? "When she about choked me in Ontario [Canada]," Daly says. "She lost it, took it out on me." (Sherrie confirms that she pushed Daly and smacked him with the cap but denies choking him.)
Allegations of abuse are common in divorce cases, and Daly himself was accused of throwing his second wife, Bettye Fulford, against a wall during a drunken rampage in Castle Rock, Colo., in 1992. (Both Daly and Fulford later denied this had happened. "I've never hit a woman in my life," Daly says. "I don't even spank my kids.") Bryan Van Der Riet, a former teaching pro who is president of John Daly Enterprises, says Daly called him at two in the morning the week of the Bell Canadian Open. "John said, 'You better come to the bus quickly, this woman is going to kill me.' So I high-tailed over, and he was outside the bus and she was inside. [Daly said] she had tried to strangle him with his gold chain and snapped the big lion head off. John was out by his courtesy car looking for the gold chain. We eventually found it on the ground." The couple argued through the night, Van Der Riet says, and Daly withdrew from the tournament after a first-round 75.
Crabtree cites another example from another Ontario. In January, at a sports bar in Ontario, Calif., Daly, Crabtree and Mick Peterson were watching a live women's boxing match. "They had these girls with big blown-up gloves on their hands," Crabtree recalls. "They're not naked, they're not anything. Sherrie came up behind [John] and hit him on the back of the head, absolutely as hard as she could. His head snapped forward, like he had been in a car accident. She started screaming, 'If you want to see women fight, you pick any woman in this club and I'll go beat her right now!' "
Sherrie, while confirming some details of the incidents, says it was John, not she, who had the alcoholic rages. The choking incident? "He's lying about that," she says. The Texas bus bashing? "He started slamming the cabinet, then he ripped it off the wall and started banging it into all the mirrors and breaking everything." The boxing match? She had been told it would involve huge men, not college-age girls "wearing thonglike shorts and bikini tops." The story that she attacked three strippers last spring at a charity golf outing in Little Rock? "I did try to choke one of the girls, but she shouldn't have been naked in front of me like that."
Had she ever physically abused her 230-pound husband? "Oh, my God, no," Sherrie says. "Well, one time, but he was yelling in my face so bad... Look at the size of him, and look at me. Does that make any sense?"
The constant bickering, those close to Daly say, goes a long way toward explaining why he has had only one top 25 finish in 2003 and is 169th on the PGA Tour money list. "The boy had no peace," says Arkansas jeweler Blake Allison, who has worked for Daly in various capacities for 20 years, most recently as operator of a merchandise trailer that Daly tows to tournaments. "If he would go somewhere, she'd sneak up on him or hide across the parking lot. It was a brutal situation."
Says Van Der Riet, "I'll tell you what I said to the PGA Tourthat as far as I'm concerned, 95 percent of this has nothing to do with alcohol. At the John Deere Classic she wasn't there. At the Buick she wasn't there. Those two weeks John didn't drink a drop of alcohol. He missed the [Deere] cut by one or two, but he hit it great." Daly tied for 38th at the Buick.
In Korea, Daly's friends all point out, he had only his caddie for company. "That win in Korea might not be a big win in the world of golf," Crabtree says, "but in the world of John Daly it is a big deal. As bad as things have been for him, I think the future could be that good."
Daly, looking out his Vegas hotel window at the lights of the Strip, shared Crabtree's optimism about his playing ability. "I wouldn't be out here if I didn't think I could still win," he said. His PGA Tour career, though, had hit a new low, and his personal life had slipped even further into the abyss of honky-tonk heartache. "It saddens me that it has to go this way," Daly said. "The hardest thing for me is losing Austin. I know he's my stepson, but he's four years old, and he's been calling me Daddy for almost three years. Little John is going to be fine, I'm always going to take care of Little John, but Austin, snuggling up to me in bed...."
Daly's eyes teared up, and he swallowed hard.
On the day that Daly flew back from South Korea, Sherrie was waiting for him with Austin and Little John at a private airport in Las Vegas. "I said, 'If you're going to divorce me, we need to do this in a civilized manner,' but he wouldn't even talk to me," Sherrie said. "I'm in shock that John has turned on me like this. I mean, honestly, I thought I knew him."
As it turned out, Daly's attorney had not filed his divorce complaint yet, so instead of waiting for papers her husband had told her were coming, Sherrie filed a complaint herself in a Tennessee circuit court on Oct. 17. In it Sherrie alleged that Daly had committed adultery and that there was "no hope" for the marriage. Two days later, at Sherrie's request, John's brother, Jamie, went to the couple's house in Dardanelle, Ark., to pack up Sherrie's belongings and take them to her in Collierville.
When Jamie arrived at the house, however, he was surprised to find John's luxury bus parked in her driveway. John had driven there the night before, and by morning he and Sherrie had decided to try to reconcile their irreconcilable differences. "I want to be with my kids and try to work things out with her," Daly said that afternoon by phone from Birmingham, where he was playing in an outing. "If it doesn't work out, we can go our separate ways." Asked to predict an outcome, Daly replied, "I have no idea."
Despite the tumult of the last two years, Sherrie sounded undeterred and even optimistic. "We're going to be a family," she said. "We're not going to let all these people ruin our marriage. John and I are very happy. The kids are happy. Everybody's happy."
She laughed and added, "We need to be on Jerry Springer, huh ?"