All the hoopla surrounding John Daly, 50, joining the Champions Tour takes me back to the 1997 PGA Championship. It was my second full year on the golf beat. When Daly got off to a hot start in the first round—he shot a 66 on a tight setup at Winged Foot—I was assigned to trail him for the week, my first real exposure to the enigmatic star. Daly was only two years removed from his British Open triumph at the Old Course but had recently hit bottom. Earlier that year, he'd withdrawn midway through the Players Championship following a boozy late-night binge that landed him in a hospital and, two days later, the Betty Ford Clinic. A week after that, his third wife filed for divorce, and a couple weeks after that Daly's $30 million Wilson sponsorship deal was terminated. He saw more drama in one month than most athletes endure in a career.
The Daly I encountered at Winged Foot was wounded and vulnerable. He'd embroidered the tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous on his golf bag: GOD SERENITY COURAGE WISDOM. As we talked in the clubhouse, he fished in his pockets and golf bag to show me at least two dozen sobriety medals that fans had pressed upon him during the week. "They're cheering for me as a person, not a golfer," Daly said. "It means everything to me to feel that."
That helps explain our ongoing fascination with Daly. Through all his ups and downs, J.D. has maintained a unique connection to the golf public. It helps that he's addicted to atonement. In an age of ass-covering and finger-pointing, Daly owns his mistakes. So the fans forgive him for playing a charity event in a pink tutu, spending a night in jail after passing out at a Hooters, or doing an on-course TV interview while playing barefoot and shirtless. The Tour has fined Daly, and cited him 21 times for not giving his best efforts. Any working stiff who's had a bad day at the office can relate.
It also helps that Daly has seemed as amazed as the rest of us at his golf gifts. At Winged Foot in '97, in the Friday twilight, he put on a show for a thousand fans at the driving range grandstand. Daly blasted balls into oblivion, and the people whooped and hollered. Tiger Woods stopping hitting balls and watched, too. Big John gave him a prison-yard stare. Yes, in the middle of the PGA, he challenged Woods to a long-drive contest.
Tiger flashed a smile and teed up a ball. The fans roared. Tiger brought the club back majestically and…took a half swing and bunted the ball 100 yards. Then Woods resumed his grim practice session.
"Kid needs to learn to have a little more fun," Daly harrumphed at the range. Very few players in golf history have combined power and touch the way Daly and Woods have. Tiger maximized his gifts, becoming an all-time legend, while Daly will always be one of the game's great what-ifs. Then again, Daly is still beloved by fans and still competes every week. Woods can't make either claim.
When I chatted with Daly all those years ago, he said he had just written a song. Without prompting, he scribbled the lyrics in my notebook. The words are still applicable as Daly quite publicly continues to try to figure out life, just like the rest of us:
I'm living one day at a time
Yes, I'm doing just fine
This is my life, let it be known
This is my life, through the years I have grown
Please, God, don't give up on me
This is my life.