John Daly Has Been Vital to Golf

July 27, 2011

Of all the stunning things that I’ve seen John Daly do through the years — these would include hitting screaming drives off a Diet Coke can, winning the PGA as a ninth alternate, breaking into a country song about his own life in the middle of an interview, getting served with divorce papers at the Masters, and so on — the most stunning happened during a pro-am at Doral.

The year was 1992; it was only months after Daly had become the biggest thing in golf by winning the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. Though by now Daly’s story has been told a million times, it is difficult to re-create just how much his victory shook the foundations of the game. Pro golf, for the first time in probably a half century, had no transcendent figure. Greg Norman seemed cursed. Nick Faldo seemed bland. Nick Price seemed almost too nice a guy to be the best player in the world — you couldn’t help but think that even he thought so.

Then came Daly with his past-parallel swing, his Arkansas grip-it-and-rip-it style that perfectly mirrored his Arkansas grip-it-and-rip-it life. He just showed up in Indiana and swung the club harder and with more feeling than anyone we had ever seen. Who was this guy?

He won that PGA by three and he instantly became one of the biggest sports stars in the world. You will remember, of course, the way Tiger Woods exhilarated the golf world. John Daly did it first. Golf, perhaps more than any other sport, has inspired writers to invent wild and hilarious and slightly unreal characters like Tin Cup McAvoy and Kenny Lee Puckett and Carl Spackler. Now, with Daly, golf had its very own fictional character.

And for 20 years now, Daly has played golf on the edge — often over the edge. More than one commentator has talked about Daly living like he swings, past parallel. Name a vice, any vice, and Daly has probably overdosed on it.

We’ll spare you the ugly details because at some point it all just blends into a hard-to-watch reality TV show (Daly indeed had such a show on the Golf Channel). The life certainly dulled his breathtaking game. Yes, Daly won the B.C. Open in 1992, the Bellsouth in ’94, and the St. Andrews Open in ’95. But that was pure talent. Daly was bursting with pure talent. Nicklaus suggested he could win 10 Masters. He was the one guy before Tiger Woods came along who would make other golfers shake their head in wonder.

Daly did not win another tournament for almost a decade after St. Andrews. Even during his brief glory period as a golfer, he was suspended, divorced, and he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic to deal with his drinking problems. Daly, from the start, seemed destined to be one of those golfers who could not ever quite live up to the talent…and he fulfilled his destiny.

But that didn’t stop people from loving him. People love him still. I love the guy. The thing about Daly’s many flaws was that the main person he seemed to hurt with all of his obsessions was himself. He spent countless hours working with charities — he seems to have a good heart. He constantly wanted to entertain crowds, and in a sport where the best golfer in the world sometimes seems to treat galleries like vague annoyances, everyone loved Daly for caring.

The question that sparked this column was simply: Has John Daly been good for golf? But there’s nothing simple about the question. Daly has walked off golf courses. He has embarrassed the game countless times. He has also inspired a million smiles. Good for golf? It’s hard to imagine golf without him.

Back to Doral: I was a kid reporter for the Augusta Chronicle when I nervously asked Daly for an interview. He was, as mentioned, perhaps the hottest sports star on earth at the time. He said, “Sure, kid, walk with me.” (“Kid” — he was eight months older than me.) And so I walked the pro-am with John Daly, and he was funny and thoughtful and charming and irrepressibly kind. He also smoked the entire time and seemed ready to get on to the next thing, whatever the next thing happened to be.

I remember he hit a long drive — with the ever-present “You da man!” shouts that have followed his tee shots for two decades — and the ball rolled into a fairway bunker. We walked to it, and Daly was in the middle of a particularly involved story. A cigarette dangled from his mouth, and his face showed the effects from the night before, and he said, “Hold on a second, I have to hit this shot.”

He walked over to the ball and without looking, apparently without thinking, he hit a full sand wedge. The sound was as crisp as breakfast cereal, and the ball rolled to within two inches of the cup.

Daly, without hesitating, handed the wedge to his caddie, walked back to me and picked up his story mid-sentence. The miraculous shot did not impress him. I suppose he thought he had an infinite supply of miraculous shots in him. He did not. We know that now. But through it all, he had enough miraculous shots to make the game of golf a whole lot more interesting.