ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — John Daly took a couple deep puffs on the cigarette he held discreetly by his side and somewhat out of view of the fans looking down from the adjacent Old Course Hotel on his left. He’d hit another enormous drive on the Road Hole. For him, it was more like the Driveway Hole. All he had left was a flip wedge into that famously treacherous green, once his playing competitors Andrew Coltart and Seung-Yul Noh hit their approach shots.
Daly took a last inhale on his smoke, carefully stubbed it out in the damp ground, then twisted his foot on it for good measure. He was about to do the same thing, metaphorically, to his Long John-Long Shot chances to win a second Open championship.
A stiff wind blew left to right, and the pin at the 17th was perched on the right side near the bank that drops off to the road that makes it the Road Hole. Daly drove a lovely low, spinning pitch toward the pin. His ball landed in the back fringe, bounced hard to the right and then ran down the slope. He got a small break when it skittered across the gravel path and stopped in a sliver of grass just short of the actual road. But he had short-sided himself with no chance to get the next one close. Hitting into the gaping Road Hole bunker on the front left would’ve been a big mistake, but that wasn’t really in play from his range. Missing the green where he did was a bigger mistake.
He wisely took his medicine, playing a nice flop shot well left of the pin, to about 25 feet, and took his bogey. That dropped him back to four-over par for the day, two-under for the tournament.
The Road Hole almost ran him over on Thursday, too, when he said he caught a 7-iron too flush and sent it over the green. There’s a road back there and a wall and a steep bank. Nothing good ever happens over the 17th green. Daly saved par Thursday but Friday was a painful bogey.
But there was still the 18th, which Daly might’ve been able to drive. A good-sized gallery awaited him at the green, possibly to see him go for it, or possibly to see what kind of outlandish slacks he wore. (For the record: pink, magenta and lime-green paisley — yeah, that looked as good as you think — with a black sweater over a lime-green shirt and matching hat.) Perhaps he wasn’t joking after Thursday’s round of 66 when he said the best thing about his wildly colored slacks was, “You can dress in the dark because anything you put on is going to match.”
Long John rocketed a drive into the Valley of Sin off the front-left corner of the green, then putted toward the Rusack’s Hotel and the front-right pin. He left it three feet short for an apparent birdie. Then he missed that one. Those were two crucial shots he gave away on the last two holes. Just as he left as least four shots out there Thursday when he had four putts that either hit the hole or lipped out. Somebody should’ve shot 62 Thursday, and it wasn’t necessarily Rory McIlroy. It was Daly.
Friday’s round, which Daly played in the blustery afternoon, added up to a 76. Actually, he’s not out of it. Yes, he’s ten strokes behind Louis Oosthuizen, a man whose name may never be pronounced correctly (it’s WEST-high-zen, he said). But Daly is only five shots out of second place.
A large group of media waited for Daly in the assigned interview tent outside the famed Old Course clubhouse, but Daly never showed. It was a disappointing day, however, for a man who had told his girlfriend, “I’m going to win this week.”
Daly shouldn’t be too down, though. For starters, he caught the brunt of the wind. It looked as if the half of the field who drew early times Thursday and late times Friday were going to have a several-shot advantage when they played in dead-calm conditions Thursday morning and went low. Friday morning, there were several patches of showers but not a lot of wind. Then, around noon, the skies cleared a bit and the wind came roaring in, getting so strong that play had to be halted for more than an hour. The far end of the course, exposed to an ocean inlet, is the windiest part of the Old Course. Daly resumed play right in the middle of that area — not the luckiest break.
Second, Daly is driving it brilliantly. He’s been long and straight and in control of his big stick for the first time in a while. You might think because he’s a power player that he simply isn’t very good in the wind, and that’s why he blew up, but that’s not true. It was plenty breezy and chilly at times when he won here in 1995, and he does, in fact, hit deft wind-cheating wedge shots, like he grew up in Scotland. The man has some touch.
On the tenth hole, for instance, he cranked a drive that the fierce left-to-right wind blew almost into the right rough, just below a TV camera tower. It was a perfect position because it left him with a 40-yard pitch from below the green directly into the west wind. He played a nice shot, but judging the wind was sheer guess-work. He missed his birdie attempt.
He lost his tee shot right at the par-3 11th and it blew halfway across the double-green that it shares with the eighth hole. Daly’s long-distance putt came up far short, and he three-putted for bogey.
At the par-5 14th, he pulled his second shot and watched it run left, nearly into the threesome putting on the sixth green. There, a curious Michael Sim walked over to see whether Daly had a clear run at a long putt — more than 100 feet — or would have to chip it from the green over the bunker. Daly chose to chip it and left it 20 feet short. He then holed that putt for birdie. He made nice pars at the 15th and 16th, two-putting from 70 feet at the latter before a pair of errors on the closing holes.
After his 66 on Thursday, he was asked about following that round with another good one. “You never know what the weather is going to do here,” he said prophetically. “It could blow 30 or 40 miles an hour tomorrow, and one-under would feel just as good as six-under.”
Two-over would’ve felt pretty good, too — a lot better than four-over. Somewhere in this ancient village, Daly was probably stubbing out another cigarette and thinking the same thing.