Over Drive: John Daly shocks world with PGA win

John Daly wins the 1991 PGA Championship
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Daly went from ninth alternate to champion.

But it was sunny Saturday that was most memorable. Daly went into a three-hole stretch on the front side as a feisty rookie. He came out as Paul Bunyan in spikes. He birdied the 456-yard 4th with a big drive and a skyscraper-high eight-iron that dropped a foot from the hole. He came within 10 yards of reaching the green in two on the 609-yard 5th, despite pushing his drive way right into trampled rough. He almost holed the chip for eagle but settled for a tap-in birdie. Then on the sixth, a picturesque 199-yard par-3, he flew a five-iron over the water to a sucker pin placement and sank a downhill 12-footer for his third straight birdie. Daly's growing legion of supporters, lining each hole like a parade route, roared and gave him ovations at every green.

"He had an Arnold Palmer-type reception out there," said Lietzke, who was paired with Daly on Saturday. "Especially on some of those iron shots that were up there a minute and a half and came down by the hole."

Daly's back nine was given rhapsodic treatment by the CBS cameras and announcers. Viewers were told that Daly's club head was too fast to be captured by the slow-motion cameras (an exaggeration) and that he had once broken a golf ball by hitting it. (Not true, according to Daly. "It was just a Titleist that had a cut in it, and you could hear the winding buzz as it went through the air.") When asked to comment on the rookie's swing, Nicklaus watched a slow-mo of Daly driving and said, "Good gracious, what a coil, what an unleashing of power. I don't know who he reminds me of. I haven't seen anybody who hit the ball that far."

Writers began calling their newspapers to ask, "How do you spell Sidd Finch?" And then came the heart-stopper. After birdieing the 18th on Saturday for a three-shot lead, Daly learned in the scorer's trailer that he might have inadvertently violated a rule while putting for eagle on the 11th green.

The rule—affectionately known as "8-2b"—states that neither the player nor his caddie may touch the putting surface along the line of the putt to assist in aiming. The replays clearly showed that caddie Jeff (Squeaky) Medlen, a Tour veteran who picked up Daly's bag when Price dropped out, had momentarily rested the end of the flagstick behind the hole as Daly eyed the line. This violation required a two-stroke penalty in the eyes of the three need-a-life armchair officials who had phoned in their rulings.

Calmer heads prevailed. In a decision with Pine Tar Game overtones, the rules committee honored the spirit rather than the letter of the law and ruled that there was no violation—the pin had touched down on the low side of the hole, not on the side on which Daly was aiming. Thus, by 10 inches or so, did the PGA of America avoid what would have been the most unpopular rules decision since the Roberto de Vicenzo scorecard fiasco at the 1968 Masters.

That gave Daly three shots to work with on Sunday, and they were more than enough. A bogey on the 1st hole, the easiest par 4 on the course, and a double-bogey on the vicious 17th were his only miscues.

Birdies on two, five, 13 and 15 kept the field at bay—only Lietzke and Knox were persistent pursuers—and the crowd yelping. As he walked up the 18th fairway after hitting an eight-iron to the middle of the green, Daly pumped his right arm to crank up the already deafening ovation from the bleachers.

It was a vindication of sorts for Daly, who taught himself to play on a nine-hole course in Dardanelle, Ark. (pop. 3,621), using balls he had fished out of a pond. He is blunt in his assessment of teaching pros ("They're always trying to change your grip") and college golf ("Too much brownnosing going on"), and he doesn't deny that he has had club-breaking fits in the face of adversity. However, none of that was in evidence on Sunday.

"I can tell you one thing, I've done this my way," said Daly, whose 1991 earnings of $166,590 were dwarfed by the $230,000 winner's check. "I don't have anybody to blame for this win but me, and I love it."

So the question asked on Friday and Saturday—"Who is he?"—now becomes "Who will he be?" Pro golf has had its one-week miracles but never one like Daly. Perhaps something fundamental happened to him at Crooked Stick, something that transmogrified the wild rookie who this year had missed 11 cuts in 24 events going into the PGA. Maybe he is no longer the player who shot two 83s at the Memorial Tournament in May. But everyone in golf must wonder, as does Daly, What comes next?

Said Lietzke, "I'm leaning toward the kid being real."

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