FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — John Daly is holding up his end of the bargain.
With the fate of the tournament potentially at stake, Daly shot a 4-under 66 Thursday in the first round of the Fort Smith Classic, his first Nationwide Tour event since 1991. Daly is from Dardanelle, about 75 miles from Fort Smith, and organizers hope he can help this struggling competition find a title sponsor so it can remain viable for the future.
The best-case scenario, obviously, is that Daly can contend through Sunday. At the very least, he’s likely to make the cut after an impressive start. Nathan Smith was the first-round leader after a 9-under 61, but Daly was in solid position tied for sixth.
“It’s great to see the fans come out that early, and hopefully there will be more if I keep playing good,” Daly said.
Daly was joined by a gallery of a few dozen fans as he made his way around the course, and they were treated to a steady, sharp round with one bogey and five birdies. Daly has said he’s trying to become less erratic – on the course and off – and that was evident Thursday on the 6,783-yard Hardscrabble Country Club course.
After starting his round on No. 10 around 8 a.m., Daly birdied No. 13 before bogeying the next hole after his approach shot went past the green and into the water.
From there, Daly parred six straight holes, a stretch that seemed a bit boring by his standards. He eventually made a strong move with birdies on four of five holes – and without needing to do anything spectacular.
“I think I only hit like four drivers today,” Daly said. “Four or five drivers.”
If that sounds unusual for the long-hitting Daly, perhaps that’s part of a newfound focus that has helped him make the cut eight times in 11 PGA Tour events this year.
“My caddie even thinks the 3-wood’s going as far as the driver,” Daly said. “So I feel really confident with that club.”
Daly has not had his full PGA Tour card since 2006, and it’s been 15 years since he won his second major, the British Open at St. Andrews. Now 44, Daly looks a lot different after losing weight last year following Lap-Band surgery.
He says he’s feeling healthy, and it certainly seemed that way when he was out on the course Thursday on a hot, humid day in western Arkansas.
“I’m just happy I lost 120 pounds,” Daly said. “If I was doing this at 308 pounds I would have taken a nap probably after nine holes.”
Instead, he played better toward the end of his round than at the beginning, although the most spectacular shot by a member of his group didn’t belong to him. Playing partner Dustin Risdon (69) holed out a 6-iron from 172 yards on the par-4 seventh for an eagle.
Risdon picked a good time to hit a shot like that – in front of plenty of fans who were there watching Daly.
“I thought it was awesome. I was looking forward to it as soon as I got my tee time,” Risdon said. “It was great to play with him and see how he hits it around out there.”
Daly isn’t the only player with Arkansas ties playing well this week. Brenden Pappas, who went to the University of Arkansas, shot 5 under, and Ken Duke, who went to Henderson State in Arkadelphia, shot 3 under.
Tag Ridings, who also went to college at Arkansas, shot 3 under.
For a tournament looking for a title sponsor, the more local buzz, the better.
“I hope they can find someone,” Duke said. “This is a well-respected golf tournament. All the members come out here and spectate, and it’s good that a lot of Arkansas guys are here playing this year.”