An epic finish: Daly wins 1995 British Open at St. Andrews

November 9, 2011

This article first appeared in the July 31, 1995 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Barkeep, Pour us another giant Slurpee and toss us half a dozen Ding Dongs. Lend us a Marlboro and six or so of them Advil. Fill up that ol’ claret jug with Diet Coke, and let’s everybody shave each other’s heads. We need to celebrate John Daly-style because the Kid from the Wrong Side of the Country Club just went and won himself a British Open at the Home of Golf is all.

So, what kind of odds would you have gotten that Daly would win a four-hole playoff after the looniest episode ever witnessed at the Royal and Annuitied Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, where a chunky Italian followed up the most famous chili dip in golf history with a purely redeeming 65-foot putt from the Valley of Sin? Who would sink their hard-earned pounds on a guy dressed like a Sinclair blowup dinosaur, a guy with serial migraines, 20 pounds too much gut, the chocolate d.t.’s, a pack-a-round habit, two ex-wives and one non-ex, two PGA Tour suspensions, two dead-last British Open finishes in his first three tries and an addiction to swinging the driver from his spikes even in winds you wouldn’t leave your cat out in?

Actually, those odds were 66 to 1 with any British bookie before the week started. Would’ve been a nice bet, because in a weird, wonderful way it had seemed like Daly’s week all along. “I don’t know,” he kept saying. “There’s just something about this golf course I love.”

Let’s see. Was it the fact that Daly drove six par-4s—3, 9, 10, 12, 16 and 18—and easily reached par-5s with iron second shots? “He play spectacular,” playing partner Seve Ballesteros gushed on Friday. “There are no par-5s for him.” Pause. “Well, there are no par-4s for him either.”

Or maybe it was the fine selection of vendors St. Andrews offered from hole to hole. Daly tried them all. Battling sugar cravings that stem from his ongoing recovery from alcoholism, he was a consuming mass, a moveable feast, swallowing not only huge chunks of yardage but also every Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate chocolate-chip muffin the Old Course could sell him. “They’re those good kind,” he said. “The kind you can get at Shell stations back home.”

He is the type who, if asked for directions to the DMV, might say, “Go three Dairy Queens down this street, then turn left at Haagen-Dazs. Take a left at Winchell’s, and it’s on the right, just past Fudge-O-Rama.” On Friday he ate four huge doughnuts on the 8th tee, then a couple of Otis specials on the 10th, all spiced with Diet Cokes and Marlboros and a nice migraine.

For the blue bloods of the R&A and the distinguished members of the British golf establishment, it was like having Gomer Pyle emcee the annual dinner. As Daly became a leader-board fixture, you could just hear some crusty blazer on the R&A balcony whisper, “If he should win, we won’t have to invite him into the lounge, will we?”

In fact, somebody asked Daly at midweek what he might do if he won and was asked to join the R&A. “I ain’t joinin’ if there’s rules and crap,” he said. “I hate them rules and crap.” Besides, he would have more important things to consider. A buddy back in Arkansas had promised to shave his head if Daly won. “Hell, I might do it too,” Daly said.

Still, for all his ignorance of the history and traditions of St. Andrews, Daly and the course got along fine, as though St. Andrews itself were tired of being dusted carefully and wanted to see somebody lash the ball a half mile on her ancient fairways. Daly was her man. He practically had to tie down his driver to keep it in the bag. He usually is forced to hit a three-iron off many tees, but St. Andrews’s ridiculously wide fairways—the 1st/18th is 117 paces wide—begged him to grip it and rip it. No place, even Augusta, is better set up for Daly, though nobody last week expected him to drive it so long and straight in winds that whipped trousers and straightened up old men. Despite being ranked 187th on the Tour in driving accuracy, he hit only two truly errant tee shots. And he was in only five bunkers all week.

Yet his accuracy wasn’t the most stunning thing about Daly. The most stunning thing was that his golf was so delicate. Yeah, even Gomer Pyle can sing in a lovely tenor. Four times on Friday, Daly two-putted from more than 100 feet, including one from 180 feet on the 12th. “I love to step ’em off,” he said, grinning under that blond Prince-Valiant-meets-the-lube-guy-at-Chevron ‘do. “Hell, that one green [5] is the size of a Canadian football field.”

In an odd way Daly was helping us all rediscover the wonders of St. Andrews, which is maybe the only place on earth where you could see the following:

• Greg Norman, his back to the 17th green, hitting his third shot off a wall and back onto the green, then draining the putt for the weirdest 4 of the week.

• Jack Nicklaus making a 10 on the par-5 14th. It happened on Thursday when he went straight to Hell (Bunker) and couldn’t find his way out with a map and a shovel. He needed four shots to get out, and then he three-putted for good measure, which allows him to tell anybody who asks how he made a 10: “Missed a three-footer for 9.”

• Bill Glasson sharing the Friday lead at the 17th tee, then watching his ball register at the Old Course Hotel en route to an 8.

Even the daily flashes in the pan were flashier than usual. Saturday’s hero was Michael Campbell, a roguish 26-year-old from New Zealand who put up the best score of the week—a seven-under 65—to take a two-shot lead. The great-great-great-great-grandson of a Scot, Campbell will be claimed as a native of Dundee if he keeps playing as he did at St. Andrews. “Am I overwhelmed?” he repeated Saturday night. “Well, no, not really—yes, I am. Yes, yes, I am very overwhelmed.”

He had overwhelmed the field from behind. The 28 guys who teed off after him went 57 over par. He went seven under. That’s how you get an Open lead to sleep with you on a Saturday night.

The next day came up so windy that for the first time all week, the bobbies used the straps under their chins to keep their hats on. And unlike the previous day, Campbell was anything but great-great-great-great. He three-putted the 5th, drove into one of the Coffin bunkers at 6, three-putted the 8th, shot 76 and finished tied for third.

Four back when the round began, Daly was feeling just right. He ate “five or six chocolate croissant things” for breakfast, he said, and then he and his wife, Paulette, danced crazily in their room to Wilson Pickett CDs. “I tell you, I love my wife probably more ‘n golf,” he would say later. Said Paulette, “He sure didn’t seem nervous.”

While the players in the two groups behind him fretted, Daly parred the first three holes, birdied the 4th, 7th and 8th, and made the turn with a one-shot lead. On a day when only two players broke 70, a charge on Daly never materialized. Not from Steve Elkington, who tied for sixth; not from Mark Brooks, who tied for third. Daly would have to come back to them.

Lord, you had to figure he would. Hadn’t his whole life been a lot of heaving this way and that? As an unknown in 1991 he won the PGA at Crooked Stick out of the trunk of his car. Great, but that revealed a drunk who slept in his car, trashed his house, abused his second wife and broke any mirror with his likeness in it. Not great, but the sobriety he was forced to adopt to save his career helped him get some control of his life. Great, except that recovery was almost too much for him to cope with, leading to amusement-park mood swings and the two suspensions. Bad, except that the suspensions gave him the last two winters away from golf, which gave him time to grow up a little, learn to play the guitar, marry Paulette, have a baby. Wonderful, except that he had not broken an egg all year on Tour and hadn’t earned a single Ryder Cup point. Not that U.S. captain Lanny Wadkins would want him. Wouldn’t fit the team chemistry, Wadkins suggested in May. Who knew which way the pendulum would swing in Daly’s life now?

At 16 on the Old Course on Sunday, Daly began the collapse everybody expected. After all, he had the highest fourth-round scoring average on the Tour. And sure enough, he stubbed his toe with a bogey after a 325-yard drive. His lead was two going into the one hole at St. Andrews nobody wants to play, the 17th. If this hole were human, it would be Dennis Hopper.

For the week it would give up 13 birdies. To Daly it had given up a double bogey just the day before. This time he hit a six-iron that the wind dumped into the Road Bunker, the place where 65s go to become 73s. Daly had no shot forward and no way out backward. Sideways left was an option, but even that was chancy.

One thing gave him hope. Playing partner Ernie Els had nearly the same shot. “No way I could’ve hit that shot if it weren’t for seeing Ernie do it first,” Daly would say. He came splashing out on Els’s heels—clearing the lip by inches—and two-putted for the happiest 5 of his life.

All that was left was to make his 4 on the 18th and see if Costantino Rocca could par the 17th and birdie the 18th to tie, a nasty order. But Rocca did par the 17th, miraculously putting his third shot from the road to within four feet. And then he hit his drive long up the left side of 18, almost to the green. With all the world watching, especially John and Paulette, who were holding each other by their haircuts near a TV set behind the green, Rocca did the unforgivable. He chunked his chip. Flubbed it like a 22 handicapper. It flew maybe five feet—not much longer than one of the linguini noodles he’d been making for friends all week—and rolled another 30.

This was the same Rocca who had missed a tiddler to turn the tide in the Americans’ favor at the ’93 Ryder Cup. It had been his one claim to blame, and though he had tried to live that down—”I don’t kill anybody,” he said last week, “I just miss the putt”—how would he ever explain this?

Behind the green, Daly’s agent Bud Martin was whooping and hollering. Daly was allowing himself a little smile and a hug. But his caddie, Greg Rita, was walking around saying, “It’s not over. Gotta be ready for a playoff.”

Get serious. Rocca had 65 feet left from the Valley of Sin, which looks like a grassed-in Paul Bunyan footprint, only deeper and trickier. Yet here came the putt, steaming at the hole and then diving in as if it were late for a subway. The crowd shook the bleachers with its roar, and Rocca lay flat on the hallowed turf, pounding the grass with utter, disbelieving delight.

“I feel like I just got kicked in the stomach,” said Paulette.

“I feel like a jerk,” said Martin.

“Oh,—-,” said Daly.

If ever there was a sobriety-ruiner, this was it—worse than chocolates and migraines and mood swings. Daly had just been Greg Normanized. But then he pulled an anti-Shark. He attacked. Instead of letting Destiny kick his butt, he threw Destiny into the turnbuckle. He simply played his cream-centered heart out. He nearly birdied the 1st with a nine-iron that just cleared the wee burn, and Rocca three-putted from above the hole. Then Daly rolled in the sweetest 35-foot birdie putt on the 2nd, while Rocca sent his birdie putt six inches left. Then Daly made a routine par on the unparrable 17th with a 345-yard drive and a lovely bump-and-run nine-iron. Rocca, stuck in the same Road Bunker that Daly had visited earlier, left it in twice and made a 7. Finally Daly made a ho-hum par at the 18th. At one point in the drubbing, you half expected Rocca to ask, “Hey, don’t I stroke here?”

Daly played the playoff in one-under 15. That 15, coupled with his final-round 71, is the only 86 this side of the Des Moines Optimist Club D-flight that is going to win you any kind of trophy. It was enough to beat Rocca by four. Destiny just got pinned.

Rocca smiled happily. He had choked horribly, recovered miraculously and finally lost to a better player. He didn’t kill anyone, especially himself.

A long time ago, after the preposterous win at Crooked Stick, Daly announced, “I wanna have more majors than Jack Nicklaus.” Well, who knows? This Daly breaks all the rules, some good, some bad, some he’s never heard of. At 29, he has a second major. Since World War II, Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller are the only other Americans to have done that before the age of 30. And though Daly told the throng afterward, “I can’t believe I get to come back for five more of these!” the reality is he gets to keep coming back until he’s 65, whether they like it or not. Not that we want to bother anybody with rules and crap.

O.K., some starched mustaches don’t see eye-to-eye with Daly—some players don’t either—but you know what? Let ’em eat haggis.

Nobody ever said you have to take a lore test before you play St. Andrews. Nobody said you have to wear a coat and tie to win here either. Like him or not, Daly is tougher than truck wax. When his talents bloom, nobody is more thrilling to watch. He may be the oaf who lugs in your Baldwin piano, but he is also the guy who can play a sweet Chopin nocturne on it.

So go out and celebrate this victory John Daly-style. Find someone special and enjoy a gourmet meal somewhere.

Maybe at a nice Exxon station.