Phil Mickelson and John Daly may be polar opposites, but their paths are converging this week

Phil Mickelson and John Daly may be polar opposites, but their paths are converging this week

John Daly and Phil Mickelson returned to the PGA Tour this week at the St. Jude Classic.
Michael Cohen/Getty Images

Besides their prodigious talents, Phil Mickelson and John Daly would appear to have little in common. Mickelson has always been the PGA Tour’s Ward Cleaver, a dedicated family man with a squeaky-clean image that has been carefully cultivated. Daly’s life has played out like a bad country song — booze, fast women, trashed hotel rooms and an occasional visit to the pokey.

But their opposite trajectories have somehow intersected this week in Memphis, a city that knows a little something about larger-than-life personalities. Their sabbaticals from the Tour came about for vastly different reasons, but through their returns, and in their own unique ways, Phil and Long John have presented us with inspirational tales of perseverance and a little more insight into who they really are.

When we last saw Daly in the U.S., he was looking like Elvis circa 1977: bloated, self-destructive, and seemingly headed inexorably to an ugly end. Suspended last fall due to a series of embarrassing and unprofessional transgressions, he has used the last six months to reinvent himself. Lap-Band surgery helped Daly shed 60 pounds, and he re-established some credibility between the ropes with a long sojourn on the European tour, which has always smiled upon free spirits. Daly’s second-place finish in Italy was proof that there is still plenty of talent left in his much-abused body, but just as impressive was the way he grinded through every other tournament over there, trying to prove to himself, and the golf world, that he still cared, and we should, too.

Now he’s walking in Memphis again, his adopted hometown. Daly didn’t play his best during a first-round 72 at the St. Jude Classic, but it still represented a small victory. Midway through his round he made three straight bogeys. In the bad old days Daly would have checked out mentally, probably already daydreaming about what was waiting for him at the nearest Hooters. This time he fought back with six straight pars to salvage his round.

Daly has always been a fan favorite because he’s basically a sweet guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. For many, the soap opera that is his life is somehow easier to identify with than the rarified country club upbringing of many touring pros. In recent years it seemed like Daly was taking the fan support — and by extension the easy endorsement dollars and sponsors’ exemptions into tournaments — a little bit for granted. Being banished from the PGA Tour was the reminder he needed that he’s not bigger than the game and that, at 43, time is running out, quickly.

He was asked this week if the St. Jude marked the beginning of his “last shot” at building on a legacy that a long time ago was about conquering the Old Course and not merely trying to conquer his many personal demons. Daly’s answer indicated that he may have finally grown up after all these years.

“I don’t know what a last chance really is,” he said. “Last chance to me is when you’re six feet under. I love this game. I really do. I know deep down in my heart I may never be the No. 1 player in the world, but I know that I love golf and I love to compete. And the satisfaction of having that opportunity, knowing I’m prepared to play, I’ve never been able to see what my best potential is. I’ve told you all before, I’ve wasted a lot of years. I enjoyed doing it, but I see these guys work and work and work, and that’s what I need to do. I don’t think I need to be a Vijay Singh or anything, but I need to work on some things that can make me better.

“Golf is my life. I mean, it’s the only thing I’ve been able to do to provide for my family, for myself. I just want to be more serious about it. I want to prepare myself more. I don’t think it’s a last chance. I think I’m giving myself a chance to be the best player that I can be, and to me that’s all that matters.”

Mickelson’s return to action stirred altogether different emotions. So many of Daly’s problems have been self-inflicted, but with Amy Mickelson’s breast cancer diagnosis, Phil and his family are the victims of the most random kind of misfortune. It was impossible not to ache for them during Phil’s pre-tournament press conference, so raw was the emotion. The first round that followed felt a little awkward, like Mickelson was a tad too exposed and everyone was waiting for him to come undone.

But behind that perma-grin is a tough, flinty competitor, and the back-to-back birdies that opened Thursday’s round were proof that Mickelson is not just going through the emotions, trying to replicate normalcy. He’s here to play hard and to prepare himself for the one tournament in golf he wants more than any other, the U.S. Open.

Mickelson is nothing if not resilient. He proved that during the brutal decade-plus when he couldn’t win his first major championship and the whole world demanded to know why. Beginning in 1999, when he lost on the final green while his wife was in labor 3,000 miles away, Mickelson has repeatedly had his heart broken at the Open, but he keeps coming back for more. What gives Phil a chance at Bethpage Black is the same thing that favors Amy in her far more important battle — they share a fighting spirit. Don’t forget that Mickelson’s greatest seasons (2004-6) immediately followed another family trauma, when Amy nearly bled to death while giving birth to their son Evan in ’03.

Way back in 1991, it seemed inevitable that Daly’s and Mickelson’s careers would be intertwined. That was the year Phil won a PGA Tour event as an Arizona St. undergrad and Long John came out of nowhere to take the PGA Championship. They were both so young and talented, and their lives so much simpler. A lot has happened since, for better and for worse. Mickelson is headed to the Hall of Fame, but who knows what heartache is ahead for him, and what glory. Daly has squandered the bulk of his career, but he finally seems healthy and happy and perhaps capable of a triumphant final act.

Their fates are uncertain, but this week in Memphis was a reminder of how much the golf world cares about both of them. Phil, J.D., welcome back. You have been missed.

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