Underdog Joe Daley holds off Couples, Lehman, Calcavecchia to win Senior Players

Joe Daley
Hunter Martin / Getty Images
Joe Daley earned his first career win at the Senior Players.

FOX CHAPEL, Pa. -- Cinderella had sweat stains.

Also, a bottle of champagne (from fellow competitor Michael Allen), a nonstop smile and teary eyes.

Meet Joe Daley, your unlikely new Senior Players Championship winner.

While this has been the year of crowning a new generation of stars on the PGA Tour -- Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler, to name a few -- it’s been the Year of the Underdog on the Champions Tour.

First, there was longtime European Tour journeyman Roger Chapman, who won the Senior PGA Championship, the granddaddy of all the senior majors. On Sunday at Fox Chapel Golf Club in suburban Pittsburgh, there was Daley, who never even reached journeyman status on the PGA Tour. A Nationwide Tour veteran, Daley was a late bloomer who didn’t begin chasing a career in professional golf until he was 32. Compared to Daley, Chapman was Lee Freakin’ Westwood. Daley won just over $155,000 in 59 PGA Tour events and just over $1 million in 272 Nationwide Tour tournaments. That covers a span of about 20 years.

But last week, the clock never struck midnight at Fox Chapel, where Cinderfella Daley outplayed the best senior golf had to offer. He racked up 24 birdies, four more than anyone else in the field, and his closest pursuers in the final round were two British Open champions, Tom Lehman and Mark Calcavecchia, and a Masters champion, Fred Couples.

Those household names were no match for Joe Daley on a breezy but still scorching Sunday afternoon. His 68 was the best score of that esteemed foursome, and he won the title by two strokes.

You probably never heard of Daley before this week, but the man can play. He talks about how he’s still getting better and about how he watches and studies the likes of Couples and Calcavecchia and Lehman in his quest to fulfill his dream. Daley is 51 and tall and gangly and bunkhouse lean. His face has deep lines and he likes to smile. His physical appearance and his positive but supremely humble outlook brings to mind the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. He laughed at a comparison to Chapman’s surprising win at the Senior PGA in a way that indicated oh, no, he doesn’t consider himself in Chapman’s class.

“I played with Roger a bunch of times last year in qualifiers, and that guy can flat-out right play," Daley said. "Actually, I played a tournament with him in Morocco years ago in Rabat that he ended up winning. I didn’t know until I met him last year and said, 'You won that year in Morocco?' He said, 'Yeah. It was one of the coolest tournaments I ever played.' "

Observers will be saying the same thing about Daley, that he can flat-out play, after the way he dismantled Seth Raynor’s classic gem at Fox Chapel. He was all about fairways and greens and making putts. If you thought he might fold in the final round, or on the final nine, or even on the final few holes while playing with Couples and Calcavecchia, you thought wrong. After birdies at the ninth and 10th holes gave him a solid lead, Daley made six straight pars while his better-known pursuers fell back. Lehman managed a birdie-birdie finish to get to 12 under par, which meant Daley knew he only needed a par to when as he teed it up at the reachable par-5 18th hole.

Well, he would’ve known if he’d been checking the leaderboards, but Daley doesn’t do that. He plays against the course and against himself. “I’m my own competition,” he said.

It wasn’t until he was just in front of the final green, putting for eagle from the fringe, that his caddie informed him that he needed only a par for the victory. His eagle putt careened 21 feet past the cup. His return putt was a downhill, sidehill slider that he started tentatively well left of the hole and then watched, as if in slow motion, as it curled toward the cup and dropped for birdie. It was quite an exclamation point.

“It was a downhill bender—wow,” Daley said. “What else can you say? It went in.”

You know you’re a Cinderella story in golf if you ever had a real job. Most big-name golfers never did. Daley has had several. He worked in the lending business in Virginia, then got another job in Annapolis, Md., and then got moved to South Carolina. It wasn’t until 1991 that he decided to revive his dream of playing professional golf after he went on a ski trip to Vermont.

“There were all these people there skiing, and all they wanted to do was ski and they worked at the resort,” he said. “I was working in an office and I thought, 'I’m doing the wrong thing.' They did what they loved so I thought, 'That’s what I need to do.' "

So he did.

Daley grew up in Philadelphia, but you can catch only a trace of a Philly accent every so often when he talks. He’s not a geographic snob. He waved a Pittsburgh Steelers Terrible Towel to acknowledge the gallery here, which drew even more cheers. He’s a Pennsylvanian, he said. Whatever. He waved a Terrible Towel in Pittsburgh -- he’s now a favorite son.

That Philly accent, by the way, disappeared after Daley went to a community college in Virginia, and then on to Old Dominion, where he played on the golf team.

“I thought I moved to a different country when I moved to Virginia,” Daley said with a laugh. “It was, ‘How y’all doin’?’ I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what did I do?' Then the food turned out to be good, and the people were really nice. So it all worked out.”

Everything works out in Daley’s world. He’s Mr. Positive. He said it seemed fitting to him that he won his biggest event here because in the early 1980s he’d played Pennsylvania Amateur tournaments at the adjacent Pittsburgh Field Club and nearby Oakmont.

“Those places beat me up and slapped me down hard,” Daley said. “I drove all the way back to Philly thinking, 'What the heck was that all about?' But I learned and it helped me this week.”

Daley is a nut for preparation in a good way. He does his homework and really studies the golf courses. He monitors his fitness. He carried protein drinks on the course to battle the heat and humidity all week. He ate six pieces of fruit Sunday to keep his blood sugar level because, he said, he was expending a lot of energy out there. He pays attention to detail. Maybe, just maybe, he was so focused on the little things that he didn’t have time to worry about Couples and Lehman and Calcavecchia and even a late charge by Olin Browne, who shot a closing 65 to finished third.

Daley's win will be a life-changer in many ways, but he said his lifestyle won’t change at all. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and as far as splurging after winning the biggest check of his career -- $405,000 -- there’s no chance of that.

“Really what I want to do,” Daley said, “is pay off my mortgage.”

Really? That’s all?

“New waders, too,” joked Daley, an avid fisherman. “My wife and I both need new waders.”

Make a note. Cinderella is going to trade in that glass slipper for a wader.

It’ll work out. Joe Daley will make sure of that.

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