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Over Drive: John Daly shocks world with PGA win

John Daly wins the 1991 PGA Championship
1991 PGA Championship

This article first appeared in the August 19, 1991, issue of Sports Illustrated.

You don't have to believe what happened at Crooked Stick last week. You can accept as fiction the news that an unknown Arkansas pro named John Daly bludgeoned a golf course into submission on his way to a three-shot victory in the 1991 PGA Championship. You can roll your eyes when you hear eyewitnesses swear that the 25-year-old Tour rookie is golf's next superstar, and never mind that he never won a tournament in three years at the University of Arkansas or that his 300-plus-yard drives rarely found the fairways until last week.

You don't have to believe what happened because Daly himself can't believe it. "This is like a miracle," he said Sunday after holing an almost ceremonial four-foot par putt on the final hole. "It just doesn't happen that often."

No, it's not often that the ninth alternate is admitted to a major championship and then embarrasses the world's most seasoned golfers. Daly had to drive all night from his home in Memphis to get to Carmel, Ind., in time for the first round. He still wasn't sure he was playing until Thursday morning, when he replaced Nick Price, who stayed home to await the birth of his first child. (It's a boy!) But Daly went straight out onto a course he had never seen and shot 69. That got him a mention in the "Tournament Notes."

His play on Friday through Sunday should get him into Ripley's Believe It or Not, right next to the improbable Jack Fleck, who beat Ben Hogan in a playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open. Daly took the lead on Friday morning and never relinquished it, finishing with 21 birdies, one eagle and a 12-under-par 276. He led the field by as many as five shots, and he made grown men and women babble over his astonishing length off the tee.

"The first two or three drives he hit, I wasn't able to see," said runner-up Bruce Lietzke, "because the ball came off the club face faster than I was used to."

Look for a run on Cobra drivers with titanium shafts and heads made of Kevlar, a material used in bulletproof vests. "A friend of mine took a .44 Magnum and blew the head off [the driver]," said Daly, "so they're not bulletproof."

Actually, the source of Daly's power is a stretch-till-you-tear body turn and one not-so-subtle thought in midswing: Kill. At the Honda Classic in March, Daly socked his drive at the 15th so far that he almost hit Greg Norman, who was playing in the group ahead of him. Last week, Daly's enormous club-head speed enabled him to fly tee shots over fairway bunkers and take huge shortcuts on dogleg holes. Where other pros were hitting 3-irons into greens, he was hitting 7- and 7-irons. Even his blunders were prodigious: He double-bogeyed the 8th hole on Saturday by hitting a 143-yard sand wedge shot over the green and into the lake.

The chief victim of Daly's onslaught was a Crooked Stick course that architect Pete Dye had lengthened to 7,289 yards, the second longest in PGA history. After three practice rounds, Jack Nicklaus said it was the most difficult course he had ever played. And two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, after shooting 81 on Thursday, said something that no one could print and stormed out of Carmel without playing the second round.

As counterpoint to these shrill observations, numerous players shot bass-clef scores. Kenny Knox, a banjo-hitting PGA Tour stalwart, employed a straight-faced driver to squeeze some extra roll from his drives and wound up sharing the first-round lead with Masters champ Ian Woosnam at 67. Thirty-seven others broke par on Thursday, and 31 wound up at par or better for the tournament.

It was sweet music to Dye, who strives for the paradoxical in his designs. Crooked Stick gave up 19 eagles in four rounds, more than one would expect, but double-bogeys were as common as mushrooms in May. The finishing holes, in particular, proved treacherous. On Friday, Craig Stadler and Nick Faldo had double-bogeys at 16, and Gary Hallberg filled the lake at 18 with golf balls and made a 12. Nicklaus and Ray Floyd both doubled 18 on Thursday and Friday.

That's what made Daly's bid so compelling. From the moment his name went on the leader board, the crowds at Crooked Stickthought he was a sand castle and the golf course a rising tide. His nicknames—Macho Man, Wild Thing and Killer—presaged a crack-up, as did his PGA Tour rankings: first in driving distance, 185th in driving accuracy. Daly himself characterized his position as second-round leader as a fluke, saying, "I'll remember this day the rest of my life."

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