MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The question came at John Daly a variety of ways Wednesday, and he tried deflecting them with jokes.
His weight loss? He cheated. And the lap-band surgery was so successful that his 17-year-old daughter is scheduled for her turn next week. His time on the European Tour? Great, loves it as much as the PGA Tour – except for the cameras going off during his swing and smaller purses. A last chance? That’s when he’s dead and buried.
Then the golfer whose life features more drama than reality TV finally talked about what everyone wants to know: Is he really serious about golf this time?
“You think you’re going to be out here for life. I took that for granted. I didn’t take all the golf tournaments as serious as I should have,” Daly said.
He mentioned NFL player Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson as an example that sticks with Daly, someone who never knew how great he could have been because of the Dallas linebacker’s own struggles with alcohol and drugs.
“But the good news is I can still salvage a great career,” Daly said.
His latest step at another career revival comes Thursday in the opening round of the St. Jude Classic, his first tournament back since a six-month suspension from the PGA Tour. He’s here on a sponsor’s exemption in a place he considers home and where fans eagerly watch, ready to call the hogs for the Arkansas native at any time.
This tournament needs Daly and all the attention he brings in a year that has featured as much suspense as the troubled golfer himself.
Title sponsor Stanford Financial was dropped in March with its assets frozen in a federal investigation. That left an event heading into its 52nd year named only for its charity, the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Tournament officials scrambled for money even as FedEx, whose headquarters overlooks part of the Southwind course, increased its support.
Late last week, the purse was cut $500,000 to $5.6 million, the first time that’s happened on tour this year. The winner will take home a little less but still a $1 million check in a move players learned about only an hour before the commitment deadline last Friday.
“We wanted to give every opportunity to see how we could compete at the levels that had been previously announced,” tour spokesman Ty Votaw said. “The final determination was that we felt it was best we do this.”
So no wonder officials welcomed Daly back with an exemption. More headlines followed when Phil Mickelson, ranked No. 2 in the world, announced his return to competition three weeks after suspending his schedule because his wife, Amy, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It’s an attempt at some normalcy and a tuneup for next week’s U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in New York.
“So here I am,” Mickelson said of playing a course redesigned and toughened to par-70 since his lone visit here in 2001.
The rest of the field includes Henrik Stenson in his first event since winning the Players Championship, Sergio Garcia, British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, Camilo Villegas and Retief Goosen. Justin Leonard is back defending his title, looking for his third win here since 2005 along with another two-time winner in David Toms.
Leonard said he does worry about the lack of a sponsor but has faith that tournament director Phil Cannon can find a replacement.
“It’s a tough spot. Trying to find a title sponsor in this economy is difficult,” Leonard said.
The tournament would like to have a replacement before the tour schedule for 2010 is announced in October or November. Cannon is optimistic about finding a replacement and said it helps being affiliated with FedEx and St. Jude, this event’s charity since 1970.
Tim Herron has been involved for years with Target House, which houses families of St. Jude patients. He said PGA golfers need this event just as much as Memphis and St. Jude.
“So I don’t think anyone here really needs to panic,” Herron said.
Herron will be playing with Daly. Herron was one of the first people who called Daly after news of his suspension, and he also talked briefly with Daly on the putting green here Tuesday.
“At least he’s thinking positive, in the right direction you know. Wish him the best on I guess positive thinking. You know it’s funny. People still love him, fans especially. People are still talking about John, which is good. So he’s still good for the Tour, good for the community,” Herron said.
Leonard is looking forward to seeing Daly himself.
“It seems like from the outside looking in that he’s pretty serious about his game, and that’s a good thing for all of us,” Leonard said.
Good golf would be a nice change from all the excitement Daly has generated away from this course. In 2007, Daly accused his wife, Sherrie, of attacking him with a steak knife. A gag order rules in their divorce case, and Daly’s attorneys got a temporary restraining order Wednesday keeping his wife, who lives next to the course, away from the TPC at Southwind while he plays.
But Daly did finish second in Italy. He has lost 61 pounds down to a trim 219 as of last weekend on his way to his goal of 190 and is working on his game with coach Rick Smith. The man who used to practice only for majors said he isn’t going to become as had-working as Vijay Singh.
“It’s like Vijay is telling me, the practice could pay off six months down the road. It could pay off a week down the road. It could pay off a year down the road. But sooner or later like what Goose told me yesterday, sooner or later it is going to pay off,” Daly said.
Divots: The caddies’ bibs will feature artwork from patients at St. Jude. … Loren Roberts will be making his 25th appearance at this event. That will break his tie with Lou Graham at 24. … David Gossett, who won the John Deere Classic in 2001, is making his first tour start since 2007.
AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson contributed to this report.