No Practice, No Problem

January 24, 2012

TULSA, Okla. — John Daly's history on the PGA Tour is like alphabet soup, mostly MCs and WDs and the odd DQ, and this year's no different. Playing almost exclusively on sponsors' exemptions, he's missed eight cuts (MC), withdrawn (WD) from four tournaments and made five checks. His best finish, a tie for 16th at the Buick Open in June, netted $75,950. Or as Daly might call it, beer money.

And yet here he is, in second place after a first-round 67 at the 89th PGA Championship at Southern Hills on Thursday.

"That guy's amazing," said Ernie Els, who shot a two-over 72. "And this course isn't even supposed to suit him."

Players compared Southern Hills to cozy Colonial, a short-hitter's paradise, but no course suits a golfer whose game has vanished. Daly's 2007 prize money of $193,679.04 puts him 178th on the money list. He's 423rd in the World Ranking. Those facts alone make it amazing that he's in the lead, but they don't tell the whole story.

Daly played no practice rounds for this PGA. Oh, no. Too hot. He played the slots at the nearby Cherokee Casino. He drank no water during the first competitive round he'd played at Southern Hills since 1994, even though the heat index was around 110. Not a drop. Fish make love in that stuff. Daly drank Diet Coke and chain-smoked Marlboros because, he says, caffeine plus nicotine equals protein.

Despite that twisted logic and very much in spite of himself, there he is. On the strength of six straight one-putts on the front nine, Daly is almost all the way at the top of the leaderboard, trailing only an obscure Englishman named Graeme Storm (65) by two strokes. Daly made four birdies, only one of them on a par 5, and bogeyed only the 507-yard, par-4 16th hole, a 5 that felt like a par because of the hole's length, he said later. All in all, he performed under the blazing sun even better than he had amid the florescent lights and bleating slot machines.

"Did good the first day; didn't do too good the other day," he said of his preparation at the casino. "But I played their golf course [Wednesday]. I went out in just a cart. They gave me their golf course from 10:00 to 1. I got a lot of practicing in."

Daly brought a gambler's mentality to the course Thursday, and not just because he hit driver off most tees. He said the caddies and the players had set odds on which man would drop first from the suffocating heat, Daly or his caddie, Peter Van Der Riet.

"So we made it, we made 18 holes," Daly said proudly. "Only had three heat strokes out there."

Daly said he recently lost about 25 pounds, and on Thursday he reported feeling so good he actually bent down to look over some putts. Or as he might call it, aerobics. At 41, he hasn't won a golf tournament since the 2004 Buick Invitational, and that victory broke a nine-year drought.

He burst onto the scene with his victory in the 1991 PGA Championship after barely getting in the tournament as the ninth alternate and driving all night to get to the course. The legend grew. He won the '92 B.C. Open, the '94 BellSouth Classic, then another major at the '95 British Open.

But all of Long John's on-course fireworks were no match for his tumultuous personal life, the binge-drinking, revolving-door rehab assignments and a dizzying game of matrimonial musical chairs that could stump an auditor. Does even Daly himself know whether he's on wife No. four or five? For the record, Sherrie Miller Daly is his fourth wife. He has four kids. According to his recent memoir, "My Life In and Out of the Rough," he's lost around $50 million gambling. Or $60 million. It's hard to say, really. Doesn't ShotLink keep track of that stuff?

Daly may be nowhere in the Ranking, but no one will ever sniff his Tour records for wine (he has his own label); women (he accused his wife of attacking him with a steak knife in June); and song (his debut album featured a number called "All My Exes Wear Rolexes").

Are Daly's terrible dry spells on the course the result of his inability to dry out? Is all the gambling in the casinos the reason why his career's gone bust? He doesn't think so. He cites injuries and rotten luck.

"It's just, there hasn't been a lot of bad, bad golf shots," Daly said of his dip in form, which began when he plummeted to 193rd on the money list in 2006. "It's just been a couple of bad breaks here, a couple missed five-, six-footers that [when they go in] keep you going. That's really all it's been."

Daly could barely remember the specifics of his round Thursday, probably because he doesn't remember the course very well, having played it only once in the last 13 years. He hit 6 of 14 fairways, which is not very good and made it all the more remarkable that he found 14 greens in regulation. He took 30 putts but only 12 while shooting a front-nine 32.

What will become of John Daly? He was five-under through his first 11 holes at the British Open at Carnoustie last month but imploded with what looked like a postal code over the next five: 6-3-8-5-4. He shot 74 and slipped to a 76 the next day to miss the cut.

Maybe Daly will disappear from this PGA just like he disappeared at Carnoustie. Maybe his unusual preparation won't catch on, won't inspire Phil and Tiger to pull an all-nighter at a Vegas baccarat table before next summer's U.S. Open in San Diego.

Then again, maybe Daly sticks around this time. After all, the last time he blew off the practice rounds was at the 1991 PGA Championship.