ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — John Daly turned the clock on the wall of the R&A Clubhouse at St. Andrews all the way back to 1995 on Friday.
Daly fired a bogey-free five under par 67 at the Dunhill Links Championship that included a stellar run of three birdies from the ninth and a grandstand three at the 18th. He shot one under par at Carnoustie on Thursday and is six under par for the championship, just six shots off the lead.
Every time the 1995 British Open champion tees it up at St, Andrews the memories come flooding back for spectators and Daly himself. Back in the day, the 29-year-old Wild Thing sported a mullet and a green windbreaker, and he had a penchant for a stiff drink to go with the stiff St. Andrews breeze plus a serious Coke habit (the beverage kind). The 45-year-old Mild Thing has a bellyband to curb his voracious appetite and thirst, but he is still a walking fashion faux pas with a shaved head, a penitentiary-orange shirt and, ahem, matching multicolored flower-power pants.
Back in the day, Daly gripped and ripped his drive at the 18th and watched his ball bounce off the steps of the clubhouse and back onto the green before he beat Costantino Rocca in a playoff. Now he slammed a drive just short of the Valley of Sin, tossed a cigarette onto the hallowed turf, chipped to four feet, holed out for birdie and waved to the spectators who still love him here. He must more at home in St. Andrews, the home of golf, than he does in Austria, the home of lederhosen, where he walked off the course last week at the Austrian Open after yet another disagreement with a tour official.
But he was all smiles after his round on a glorious afternoon in Fife that required sunscreen rather than windbreakers.
“I saw people swimming in the sea. That’s gotta be a little cold,” Daly said laughing. “I’m happy. I drove it well and don’t think I missed a green. I love it every time I come here. It don’t matter if I’m 10 over or five under or whatever.
“Just to play it, you know, is so special. The memories of ’95 pretty much come back when I’m here,” Daly said. “I fell in love with this place even before that when Payne Stewart, Freddie Couples and I won the old Dunhill Cup in ’94. Gotta keep driving it good at Kingsbarns. The guys have been eating it up today.”
They certainly had, and it’s doubtful Daly had even heard of the two names on top of the leaderboard. There’s a Northern Irishman leading the Dunhill Links Championship but it’s not that one, or the other one, or even the older one with the Claret Jug. Forget Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, the little-known Michael Hoey continued the theory that, even here at the home of golf, the center of excellence of the golfing universe lies in Northern Ireland. The 32-year-old World No. 271 and 2001 British Amateur champion backed up his 66 on Thursday at St. Andrews with another at Kingbarns to sit at 12 under par with the most difficult test of Carnoustie still to come.
He shares the lead with 20-year -old Englishman Tommy Fleetwood who tamed Kingsbarns with a nine under par 63. The English Golf Union (the governing body for amateur golf in England) predicts Fleetwood will be a World Top 20 player and he is now beginning to live up to the hype. Fleetwood leads Europe’s second-tier Challenge Tour and he won his first professional event recently over the far-flung fields of the Kazakhstan Open. A victory over the rather better-known St. Andrews might just rank slightly higher on the list of his achievements that includes a victory at the 2010 English Amateur championship.
“I’ve watched it on TV for years,” Fleetwood said. “Hopefully I can play with somebody like Kaymer and Westwood. That would be cool. My name is in pretty good company right now.”
There are indeed some big sharks circling the little fishes with Louis Oosthuizen 11 under par, Graeme McDowell 10 under par, Martin Kaymer 9 under par, and Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood 7 under par.
Oosthuizen has returned to the form that saw him win the British Open at St.Andrews last year. He scorched Carnoustie with a five under par 67 to be just one shot off the lead. He can now look forward to two rounds over the Old Course, fueled by a barrel-load of memories from the greatest week of his career.
“There’s nothing better than holding the Claret Jug at St Andrews,” Oosthuizen said. “Hopefully the end of the week it’s just a different trophy.”
McDowell, too, has rediscovered his golfing mojo at the Dunhill. His playing partner at Carnoustie was McIlroy. This time last year G-Mac and Wee Mac were joined at the hip at the Ryder Cup in Wales. In Scotland, they were back to being mates and rivals. McIlroy sprinted out of the blocks with four birdies in the first five holes, leaving McDowell jogging along with pars. But McDowell was playing tortoise to McIlroy’s hare. Honors were even with 67s, but McIlroy is still three shots behind his pal on the leaderboard along with Westwood, who stumbled into the clubhouse at Carnoustie with a 69 after bogies at the final two holes.
“Great fun playing with Rory and his dad,” McDowell said. “Trying to stay out of the Jigger Inn is the key to playing well this week. I’ve managed that pretty well so far.”
It was all going swimmingly for World No. 1 Luke Donald with five birdies at Carnoustie until he threw away four shots over the infamous closing four holes including a double-bogey at the 18th. It was worse for World No. 5 Dustin Johnson, who carded a one-over-par 73 at Carnoustie to be even par for the tournament and in danger of missing the Saturday cut. Maybe he needs a new caddie.