Daly, golf’s ultimate savant, has his head on straight and his game in order

Daly fired a first-round 68 Thursday at Kiawah Island.
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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — I'm a John Daly fan. That is, I still root for the guy to play well. Why, I cannot tell you. But I do.

He played beautifully in the first round of the PGA, especially with the driver and the 3-wood and the putter, the three most important clubs at Kiawah. (You're going to make some bogeys on the four very difficult par-3s, so you have to make some 4s on the par-5s, which are long. Smash a driver, smash a 3-wood.) I'd love to see him play three more good rounds.

But I'm not counting on it. If there's one thing we know from watching John Daly for more than 20 years now, it's that you can't count on him.

He turned 46 shortly after the Masters, another Masters in which he did not play. He has not played at Augusta since '06 and has not made a cut there since '02 . It's criminal. With his talent, he should have multiple green coats. Augusta National is made for him.

(Related Photos: John Daly's wild golf pants)

With limited status on the PGA Tour, he's been playing abroad more this year than he's been playing in the Lower 48. He's been playing most of the year and in most of the world. In Qatar. In Australia. In Canada. In Reno. Not well for 72 holes, but some very good golf.

His four-under card on Thursday was not catching lightning in a bottle. You can't kill the kind of talent this guy has, though he sure as hell tried. He played to his talent in the first round, that's all. And for the couple hundred people following him, drinking Landsharks and screaming themselves red on a hot, sun-drenched day, it was like 1992 all over again.

Why do I still pull for him? A variety of weird reasons. Because he's not a country-clubber. Because he knows the road. Because in his failings and in his successes he really is just like most of us. Except more so. None of this is original. It comes from John Daly himself. He has said on his TV show. (Which was awful.) And in songs. (Which are not.) And in his books. He has sold more golf books than anybody I know not named Hank Haney.

You are welcome to call me out on any of this. In fact, I'll beat you to it. There's a reason why Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus and Hal Sutton did not pick him for Ryder Cup teams. He's the only person to have won two majors and never been on a Ryder Cup. He doesn't get chosen because the golf establishment has certain sensible values that it holds dear, and Long John does not value those things.

For years, he's taken spots in tournaments in which he's had no business playing. He's squandered his crazy-good talent. He's abused his body. (His choice, I know, but hard to watch.) He's taken hugely from the game — from Ely Callaway, from sponsors, from officials and volunteers — and has often acted like a spoiled, self-absorbed brat. He cannot look us in the eye and say he's given us anything like his best effort.

And yet.

And yet there's something endearing about him. Part of it, of course, is his immense talent. I consider him the single greatest natural golf talent I've ever seen, the ultimate golf savant.

Watching him play a round of golf is fascinating, whether he's shooting 80 or more, which he's done more than any other world-class player you can name, or shooting 68, as he did in the first round of the PGA Championship. As a natural golf talent, I would rank him ahead of Jack Nicklaus and ahead of Tiger Woods. The beautiful, flowing, putting stroke. The incredible imagination around the greens and the skill to play the shots he sees in his head. I am often astonished at the speed with which his brain processes all the various choices before him. He will often just grab the club and go. That's not an important golf skill, not at the plodding pace professional golf is played, but it counts in my book.

But at Kiawah on Thursday, he did something you don't see him often do, something that should give John Daly fans some hope for what the next three days might bring. He smashed a drive on the par-5 16th. He spent a full minute figuring out his second shot. Then he nailed a 3-wood. Two putts later he had another birdie. The point being, he had a plan. He killed it, which has always been his M.O., but he thought about other options.

He's still long off the tee. He can mis-hit a drive 300 yards. In his first round, in a threesome of former PGA Champions, he was sometimes 30 yards past Shaun Micheel and David Toms. In still conditions, or downwind or even in a crosswind, he's as long as anybody in the game.

Dead into the wind has always been a problem for him, because he hits, basically, moonshots. On Thursday he played in still air and on a soft course. His drive on 13 stayed in the fairway. Had the course been firm, it would have been with the fishes. Weather will dictate his scores more than anybody else's on the leaderboard.

You never know where or when Big John's going to play. He doesn't have a full-fledged Tour card, but he can put two majors on his calendar every year, the PGA and the British Open. His status as a former champion gets him into those two events. He won the '91 PGA Championship at a Pete Dye course, Crooked Stick, and now he's playing another one. It's not an accident. Pete Dye builds super long courses. Long is good for Long John.

He's way more reflective now than he used to be. The marriage wars, the challenges of family life, the many, many fights with many, many people — they could make a man go deeper into his cave or help him figure stuff out. He's figured out what every smart person in the game figures out, eventually: the line between failure and success if razor thin.

"I don't think any of us that are fighting to get our cards or fighting to win or whatever, we're never, ever that far [off]," Daly said. "I just believe if I keep telling myself [that], I'll get where I want to be."

It's weird, to hear somebody with Daly's immense talent talking so modestly, but it's the right tone to take, and it's the right way to think. John's got a million miles on him. The way back is to do exactly what he's doing. Playing golf wherever they'll have you, playing every shot like it's your last. He has had years and years where he didn't do that. But on Thursday he did.