A focused John Daly returns to the PGA Tour in Memphis

A focused John Daly returns to the PGA Tour in Memphis

So far, Daly is a go for Memphis, will attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open and then, later in the summer, tee it up in the Buick Open.
Paul Childs/Action Images/ZUMA Press

I’m going to be playin’ Memphis, been reinstated from the PGA — John Daly, via Twitter, May 26, 5:50 a.m. EDT

As those 11 words, sent from John Daly’s computer in the late-morning hours in Kent, England, hurtled through cyberspace last week, Phil Cannon, tournament director of next week’s St. Jude Championship in Memphis, was already preparing for the coming storm.

It was Cannon’s sponsor’s exemption that officially ended Daly’s exile from the PGA Tour, a six-month suspension following a spate of incidents in 2008, including a night spent in a North Carolina jail after an evening of drinking. Daly, the prodigal son of professional golf, would soon be walking in Memphis.

Cannon’s phones at St. Jude Championship headquarters were beginning to ring off the hook, with folks calling to confirm the reports about Daly’s imminent return and, of course, to scoop up tickets for the tournament. “I call them Daly’s dailies,” Cannon says. “They’re the people who buy a daily ticket just to watch him play.”

Cannon says he felt no queasiness about giving Daly a precious sponsor’s exemption, his off-the-course combustibility notwithstanding. One year during the Memphis tournament, Daly arrived at TPC Southwind with what appeared to be fingernail scratches on both sides of his face. He said Sherrie, his fourth wife, had tried to stab him with a steak knife the night before. Despite that incident and other odd behavior over the years, Cannon prefers to highlight the positive when it comes to Daly and his support of the Memphis Tour stop.

In a year in which the St. Jude Championship lost its title sponsor, Stanford Financial, due to an alleged fraud scandal, Daly provides a crackling story line, whether he wreaks havoc or not. “I don’t want to get too hyperbolic,” Cannon says, “but there was another Memphian named Elvis Presley whose popularity was also hard to quantify.”

Just weighed in at 225, LOST 55 POUNDS!! That’s AMAZING! — Daly, via Twitter, May 17, 5:06 a.m. EDT

Like Elvis, Daly has also gone through huge weight swings, starting as the fit and mustachioed ninth alternate who won the 1991 PGA Championship, becoming the pleasantly plump bomber who won the ’95 British Open, and ballooning into the obese, sweat-stained golfer who let himself go in the new millennium.

This spring, the pictures beamed across the Atlantic to the U.S. have shown a trimmed-down Daly, thanks to lap-band surgery on his stomach in February. The weight loss (he wants to get to 190 pounds), a new girlfriend (former Hooters promotional director Anna Cladakis), a new swing guru (Phil Mickelson’s old coach Rick Smith) and a new habit (Twitter) have given Daly a new sheen.

But what will the Tour be getting when Daly plays in Memphis, attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open and then tees it up on another sponsor’s exemption at the Buick Open in late July? Is this a new John Daly?

“I saw him on TV. He has a few more pounds to lose, but don’t we all,” says Jeff Maggert, who has known Daly since they competed against each other in college (Daly at Arkansas, Maggert at Texas A&M). “From my perspective it’s not about him coming back and playing golf. It’s about getting his life in order. You don’t want to pick up the newspaper and read that something bad has happened. That’s the road he’s been on.”

At the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, won by Steve Stricker, the emotion and focus of the week centered on Amy Mickelson’s breast cancer, but Daly’s return was also a topic of conversation. If Daly’s Tour brethren have grown tired of his stops and starts and endless incarnations, they aren’t saying so. Instead, they’re softly cheering for a 43-year-old golfer entering perhaps his final act as a professional.

“He’s the sweetest guy. He’s always so kind to everyone he’s around,” says Ben Crane. “Well documented are his struggles. We simply want him to go forward.”

Says Gary McCord, the Champions tour pro and CBS announcer, “Hopefully he gets a little wiser. He needs to focus and have something to do. If he’s tending to his business and doing his job, it helps himself and the Tour. If he’s cast adrift, who knows what’s going to happen?”

MISS YOU BUB got your message!! Bad luck of the draw in Ireland w/weather but stayin focussed & workin hard practicin’ — Daly, via Twitter, replies to Rick Smith, May 16, 10:15 a.m. EDT

Daly has played in seven European tour events since his suspension, interspersing competitive rounds and practice days with a strong embrace of the European life. If he is not the rock star overseas that he is in the U.S., Daly’s baseline for popularity is his Open triumph at St. Andrews, the kind of cachet that never expires.

Last month Daly tied for second in the Italian Open while wearing yellow pants, one of many sartorial choices that squares nicely with the splashier golf outfits in Europe. (Daly recently signed an apparel deal with Loudmouth Golf, a California company whose celebrity roster includes former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and rocker Alice Cooper.) And though he missed the cut at the Irish Open at Baltray, Daly used the occasion to buy an Irish wolfhound at Nutstown Kennels near Dublin. (He named the dog Greg.)

Without status on the PGA Tour and unsure of how many sponsor’s exemptions he will receive (the maximum allowed is seven), Daly is instead chasing a spot in the European tour’s Race for Dubai, in which the top 60 on the money list compete in the $20 million Dubai World Championship in November. Daly is 100th in earnings. But with Tiger Woods still a question mark and with Mickelson out indefinitely, Daly’s wattage would provide an instant boost to the Tour. Says McCord, “[Daly] is still one of the biggest draws out here — him or Freddy [Couples].”

Says Tour veteran Bart Bryant, “It does nothing but help our Tour when John shows up and plays well. The fans know it.” Problem is, Daly hasn’t shown up or played well for most of the last decade, save for an out-of-nowhere win at Torrey Pines in 2004 and a stirring playoff loss to Woods at the ’05 American Express Championship at San Francisco’s Harding Park.

If Daly can refrain from becoming an Internet sensation — hitting tee shots off beer cans, playing shirtless and shoeless (as he did in Missouri) while doing a television interview, drinking heavily and ending up with a mug shot in an orange jumpsuit — he might last a little longer in his return from his European adventure.

After missing the cut at last week’s European Open, Daly made plans to fly back to the U.S., where the PGA Tour was awaiting him. He was a new man, or at least he looked like one.

We’ll have the rest of the year to see if looks can be deceiving.

It’s nice to know I weigh less than my luggage now! Lol — Daly, via Twitter, May 17, 8:31 a.m. EDT

Manage your game, on and off the course, with SI GOLFNation — Join Now!