Daly turns back the clock in opening round at St. Andrews

Daly turns back the clock in opening round at St. Andrews

John Daly made seven birdies and one bogey en route to a 66.
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — When Andrew Coltart, the Scottish pro, strolled onto the 15th tee of the Old Course this morning during the opening round of the 2010 British Open, he spotted an old acquaintance kneeling next to the tee box.

“Hello,” Coltart said wryly to London Times correspondent Graham Spiers. “What brings you out here?”

It was a rhetorical question. Spiers and the herd of other writers, photographers and spectators trailing Coltart weren’t there to watch the local kid, even though he was making good on his way to a 6-under-par 66. They were there to take in the thrilling, ever-colorful theatrics of the John Daly Show.

In a pink golf shirt, a baby-blue sweater and purple paisley trousers that surely sent one or two tweed-coated R&A members running for cover in the nearest pot bunker, Daly partied on the Old Course like it was 1995. Fifteen years removed from his last major win — the British Open on this very same links — and just six months removed from a discouraging week at Torrey Pines after which he said he was through with golf, Daly went out in 5-under 31, added two more birdies on 10 and 11 and posted a stirring 66. And it could have easily been a 63 — or better.

“I hit some good putts on the back nine that I thought were in and just kind of trickled away from the hole,” Daly said. Those included a missed birdie try from within four feet at the par-4 12th and another birdie attempt on the home hole that horseshoed out from eight feet.

“It’s good to be sitting here,” Daly told the press after his round, setting up one of many lines that drew spirited laughter from the assembled writers. “I think this is the first time I’ve seen the media center at the British Open since ’95.”

Lipped-out putts did not define Daly’s round — his titanic drives did. Hitting his big stick on all but two of the par-4s and -5s, Long John paid little respect to the mass of stealthy bunkers and the topsy-turvy fairways that can send even well struck tee shots wayward. On the 423-yard par-4 16th, Daly’s playing partners both hit irons off the tee. Daly blasted driver at least 100 yards past both of them, leaving himself a 75-yard approach.

“The way I hit my driver today, I had so many opportunities,” Daly said. “I could fly a lot of those bunkers and had a lot of wedges in there.”

It was a memorable round straight out of the box for Daly on a still, damp, and ripe-for-scoring day on the Old Course. J.D. knocked a pair of wedges on the first and second holes to eight feet and five feet, respectively, and drained both putts to get to 2-under. At the par-4 sixth, he stuck a lob wedge to six feet; at the 175-yard par-3 eighth he left himself 15 feet; and at the par-4 ninth, he had a kick-in from four feet. Birdie, birdie, birdie.

Two more birds from three feet and eight feet at the short par-4 10th and the par-3 11th had spectators-in-the-know whispering about the possibility of Daly matching or breaking the recently amended course record of 64.

Fans who know Daly also know he’s a walking, talking, Marlboro-smoking, Diet Coke-slurping time bomb, a player prone to punctuating a string of birdies with an out-of-bounds tee shot, a four-putt or an ugly “other” on his scorecard. That moment could have easily happened in the 14th fairway, where Daly’s group was forced to wait some 20 minutes for Sweden’s Alexander Noren in the group ahead of them to find Noren’s ball in the gorse (the Swede didn’t). Daly killed time taking practice swings with a fairway wood and chatting with his caddie, David Rawls, then blistered his second shot down the heart of the fairway. “He looked very, very calm and composed out there,” Coltart noted.

Maybe it’s something in the briny St. Andrews air, or the dearth of distractions in town (read: no Hooters) — whatever the reason Daly looks right at home at the home of golf. He said after his round that the Old Course is his favorite track anywhere in the world and has been since the 1994 Dunhill Cup, which Daly won here with Payne Stewart and Fred Couples. “It just puts driver in my hand,” he said. “It just suits my game.”

“The Old Course is a memory before you’ve ever played it because of all the great players that have won and played it,” Daly added. “When you’ve got that going for you, you don’t feel disappointed when you don’t play so well, but you feel even better you do play well.”

That much was evident in a lively post-round press conference where Daly revealed several tasty nuggets. For example, after having the lap-band surgery that helped him lose some 80 pounds, J.D. said he has quit drinking whole milk. “I used to drink half a gallon of that a day,” he said. “When you used to be as hung over as I used to be, it was great. Got rid of everything.”

When asked about his televised threat to quit the game after a second-round 71 in San Diego earlier this year, Daly said he’s not the only Tour pro who occasionally feels like going cold turkey. “I’m probably the only idiot who would say it on TV,” Daly allowed, “but I talked to Tim Herron and he said, ‘I wanted to quit a million times.’ There’s lots of guys that say that.”

If today was any indication, Daly would be wise to stick around golf for at least a little while longer. He can still make birdies in bunches, he can still pound it deep with the longest of them, and the fans still eat him up like a steak and kidney pie. Daly still has 54 holes to play this week, and he knows his fickle game well enough to know all that could go wrong in that stretch. But should Daly somehow prevail this week, he also knows precisely what that would mean.

“It would be just the most gratifying victory I could ever have,” he said.