The story of John Daly’s unbelievable victory at the 1991 PGA Championship

January 31, 2012
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John Daly’s career has featured a litany of surprises, but none more audacious than the first: his win at the 1991 PGA Championship. Forget that Daly, a rookie, had missed 11 cuts in 23 starts preceding that week at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind. The real shocker was his getting into the tournament at all, the result of a domino chain of withdrawals that ranged from excusable to extraordinary and that introduced Ken Anderson, the PGA’s czar of the alternates list, to a new kid on the Tour block: 9th alternate John Daly. “I had never heard of him,” Anderson recalls today. “I had to go look him up in a PGA Tour player guide so I’d know what he looked like in case I had to go find him and get him registered.” What transpired, of course, was one of the most fateful clashes of time and circumstance in golf history. Here, from those who were there, is how it all unfolded.

Legend has it that Daly drove all night from his home in Memphis to get to Crooked Stick and didn’t know he was in the field until Thursday morning, when Nick Price withdrew due to the impending birth of his first child, Gregory. That was a slight exaggeration.

Anderson: “I spoke to John on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning to tell him he was first alternate, and he said he was going to get in his car and start driving. He got lucky in that Price had an afternoon tee time. It allowed him to sleep in. I looked up where the players were staying that week and left a message at John’s hotel to say he’d gotten [into the field] and didn’t have to get to the course at 7 a.m.”

Daly had never seen Crooked Stick — all 7,295 yards of it — and needed a caddie who had. Jeff (Squeaky) Medlin, a hard-working former bricklayer, was set to work for Price, but had driven from his home in Columbus, Ohio, to Carmel knowing his man might withdraw. When Price did scratch, Medlin picked up Daly. After winning four majors, three with Price and one with Daly, Medlin would die of leukemia at age 43 in 1997.

Dianne Medlin, Squeaky’s widow: “Jeff was pretty meticulous about walking the course. He’d be out getting yardages for hours. He was there, I believe, on Monday — it’s only a three-hour drive from Columbus to Indianapolis, and I think he drove over just to see what was going to happen, if Nick was going to play.”

Daly and Medlin worked together for the first time Thursday, and despite being relatively unknown, Daly tapped into the form he’d displayed that July, when he notched three top-15 finishes on Tour.

Daly: “I was pretty loose because I had just secured my card. I had made 160 grand — I don’t know where I was, 50th on the money list, maybe 40th.”

Grouped with Billy Andrade and Bob Lohr, Daly shot an opening 69. It made a nice note for the papers, nothing more. The PGA of America had moved the tees up, and Kenny Knox and Ian Woosnam were the co-leaders after shooting 67s.

Andrade: “I knew John from college. He was at Arkansas, I was at Wake Forest. I just remember every hole he’d go, ‘Where do I hit it here, Squeaky?’ John was like a blind man with a guide dog. He didn’t miss a lot of shots.”

Lohr: “The first hole he hit 1-iron, which I thought was interesting. We were all hitting driver there. The fairways were soaking wet. I vividly remember hitting a good drive, and John flying it by me with a 1-iron. The third hole, a par 3, he hit three clubs less than I did. I remember he had this white, plastic-looking Cobra driver nobody else had. It was the best driving exhibition I’ve ever seen.”

Medlin: “Jeff had caddied for guys like Freddie Couples, Nick, Jeff Sluman, and to go from that caliber of player to someone he’d never heard of, he was like, ‘Oh, I’m working for a rookie.’ But after the first round he called and said, ‘I can’t club this guy. He hits it longer than anybody I’ve ever seen.'”

A spectator had been killed by lightning at the U.S. Open at Hazeltine earlier that summer, and during a rain delay in the PGA’s first round a bolt killed 39-year-old Thomas Weaver, who was 100 yards from his car, in a parking lot a mile from Crooked Stick.

Jim Nantz, who covered the tournament for CBS: “I remember that lightning bolt shaking the ground and finding out later someone was killed. I was doing the late-night show as I do now, and I remember going to the hospital. I think I’d been dispatched by CBS to see if there was a statement or something from the hospital.”

Price’s wife, Sue, gave birth on Friday morning, and Daly took the lead for good. Among his memorable shots was a 199-yard 6-iron that landed within three feet for eagle on the par-5 ninth hole. No dogleg was safe, and he shot a second-round 67. Upon seeing his name atop the board at round’s end, Daly said, “I’ll remember this day the rest of my life.”

Jim Ferriell, Crooked Stick’s head pro: “Prior to the PGA, [Crooked Stick designer] Pete Dye asked me to look at a new tee he was putting in on 14. It was going to be 275 yards to carry a creek and I said, ‘Some guys will be able to carry it, but they won’t move it right to left enough to turn the corner.’ Hell, Daly did turn the corner. He had wedge or 9-iron in.”

Daly: “All I remember is 14, a big dogleg left, and it was like 280 to carry the water, and I was hitting L-wedge into that hole. Guys were hitting 3- or 2-irons in. It was a big, big advantage.”

Andrade: “I remember waking up in the middle of the night Friday and thinking, ‘This guy is going to win. He’s hitting it over all the trouble.’ He didn’t have any stress off the tee, and that’s so much of what the majors are about. I think Squeaky was a big difference. On every hole, he’d go, ‘Just kill it,’ in that high-pitched voice.”

Fuzzy Zoeller: “The bunkering kind of closed in at 260, and then at 280 it opened back up to the wide-open spaces. Well, John never saw 280. He was pumping it out there 300 yards in the air.”

Pete Dye: “I had Greg Norman out to the course prior to the PGA and he couldn’t carry anything; John Daly carried it all.”

Daly’s fireworks obscured the fact that he was putting well.

Andrade: “I remember him putting like kids putt, ramming everything in. It seemed like they were going in the center at 100 mph, which told you he was confident.”

Daly: “I made all my six-, seven-, eight-footers that week.”

Daly was paired with veteran Bruce Lietzke on Saturday, and by the time they teed off, the Legend of John Daly was growing exponentially.

Lietzke: “It was pretty awe-inspiring. I don’t think I’d ever seen his name. Back in the ’70s, there was this guy who wore the rainbow wig and had a sign that said, john 3:16. He was there, and a writer said he didn’t know if the guy was making a religious statement or giving Daly’s driving distance.”

Nantz: “The story was growing every day, and by the time Saturday rolled around, we were documenting his whole history, every piece of information we could find on the guy. I was diggin’.”

Lietzke: “I’d never seen anyone’s swing go that far past parallel, at least nobody on Tour. He had a real following, even though nobody knew who he was. He played to the crowd; of course they loved the distance and he hit it straight as a string. He was smoking cigarettes and waving. He was the everyman’s hero.”

Bud Martin, Daly’s agent: “The perception in the public and the way CBS presented it was this guy was just kind of driving down the highway, as the ninth alternate, and said, ‘Hey, I might as well play.'”

Daly was putting for eagle on the 11th green Saturday when Medlin touched the green with the flagstick. By doing so he nearly broke Rule 8-2b, which prohibits a player and his caddie from touching the green, for aiming purposes, along the intended line of a putt.

Lietzke: “Somebody called in and we had to go into a trailer to look at the tape for five minutes after the round. It came pretty close, but we determined he didn’t touch the intended line. Squeaky was one of the veteran caddies and would have known you couldn’t do that.”

Larry Startzel, chairman of the Rules Commitee: “John was very professional about the whole thing, and Bruce really saved the day. He was adamant that Jeff hadn’t been giving John the line.”

Having avoided a two-stroke penalty, Daly and his fiancé, Bettye Fulford, attended an Indianapolis Colts preseason game Saturday night. Anonymous three days earlier, they were treated like royalty.

Daly: “Me and Bettye went on the 50-yard line and waved at everybody like I’d already won the tournament or something. The fans were nuts. They were great. The owner, Mr. [Robert] Irsay, asked me if I played any football, and I said I used to kick field goals. I was going to get dressed up for the Colts to kick a field goal in the game, and we almost had it, but the insurance wouldn’t do it.”

Nantz: “The Colts were playing Seattle. I didn’t go with John, but I went because I wanted to see what the reaction was. I was just trying to make sure I had a front-row seat to this week from out of the blue.”

With one round to go, Daly led by three over Kenny Knox and Craig Stadler. Knox got the call to play with the game’s new star on Sunday, which would have a profound impact on Knox’s career.

Knox: “He hit this high ball that looked like a pop-up, but you’d get out there and it would have gone 325 yards. I’d never seen anybody do that. The real difference was on the par 5s. I’d be hitting driver off the deck for my second shot, and he’d hit mid- to short-irons. The first hole, he hit it in the trees and bladed it over the green to make bogey, and I missed like a 10-footer for birdie, but he hit it to a foot on two for birdie and was off to the races.”

Daly: “It was a big week for Ryder Cup. Steve Pate chipped in on 18 to get in. I found out that 1990 had been the last year where if you win the PGA you get in the Ryder Cup. I honestly thought I might get picked.” [A PGA official confirms the rule to not have the on-year PGA winner appear in the Ryder Cup was made in 1989.]

Knox: “I’d won three tournaments, and this was my best chance to win a major. But I was always hitting 5-iron while other guys were hitting 7 or 8. I tried to get longer, started taking the club back farther and hurt my back in 1992. I hit the ground at the Western Open and was never the same after that. I tried to fix a swing that worked. The distance — you either have it or you don’t. I never did.”

Daly birdied the second, fifth, 13th and 15th holes. He then three-putted to double-bogey the 17th hole, and with water guarding the right side of 18, Ken Venturi said on CBS, “I’ll tell you what, it’s not over yet.” But it was. Daly managed to avoid the drink and left himself with only an 8-iron in for his second shot, and he found the green. He would beat Lietzke by three, Jim Gallagher Jr. by five, and Knox by six. As he walked to the green Daly waved a towel in the air.

Daly: “I was doing the Arsenio Hall, the towel thing. Winning the [1995] British Open was sweet but not as rowdy and cool as that. It was cool going through the crowd high-fiving everybody. My right hand was so sore after that week. My fingers were so sore. Man, I don’t do that anymore. I’m scared I’m going to get injured.”

Daly, Fulford, agent Bud Martin, and Daly’s then best friend, Donnie Crabtree, were among a small group who piled into a limousine and instructed the driver to head toward the nearest McDonald’s drive-through, where Daly stuck his head through the sunroof and ordered. Then they went to a party thrown by Crooked Stick president Michael Browning.

Crabtree: “It didn’t get too crazy. John didn’t have that many friends and family there. You can’t really plan that type of thing. I don’t remember him drinking at that party. If anything he might have had a beer or two, but it wasn’t a big drunk or anything like that.”

Daly: “I was going to McDonald’s all the time. I was drinking some whiskey back then, but not like everybody perceives. I’m not any different; when things aren’t going good, you drink. A lot of people drink when things aren’t going good. I never drank that whole week.”

Ben Wright, who worked the 17th hole for CBS: “I knew John, and I walked in with him down the 18th hole Sunday, and I said, ‘Is that a beer you have in your cup?’ He said no, it was iced tea. I suspect it was beer. I don’t have any compunction about saying that. I’ve always had a terrific relationship with John; he’s been a terrific friend to me.”

Even while basking in the glow of victory, Daly remembered the family of 39-year-old Thomas Weaver, who during a rain delay in the PGA’s first round was killed by lightning in a parking lot a mile from Crooked Stick.

Nantz: “I was there to present the Wanamaker Trophy, and John right off the top said he was giving $30,000 to a scholarship fund for those two little girls who lost their father earlier in the week.”

Dee Fisher, Weaver’s widow who has since remarried: “It was a tragedy we have learned to move forward from. But it was such a nice gesture that John, especially at such a young age, would think of my family. The money gained interest, and their dad and I had set aside some, too. Emily started at Purdue, got married and finished at a school in Illinois. She got a degree as a respiratory therapist. Karen got a degree in biology at Indiana and is doing clinical rotations at medical school in Michigan.”

Daly finally met the family at Fuzzy Zoeller’s Wolf Challenge tournament in Indiana in 2006.

Fisher: “Everybody was very kind and it was nice to meet the man with the generous heart after all those years. He liked meeting the girls, and they’d put together a scrapbook of what they’d been doing since their father had been gone. I think John was touched. That’s what I think of when I see bad articles about him.”

Thanks to Daly’s theatrics at Crooked Stick, hoards of people turned out to watch him at the following week’s International near Denver.

Daly: “In Colorado it finally hit me what I’d done. I’d had a few people following me because I hit it long, but this — 7,000 people for a practice round on a Tuesday — was unheard of out here.”

Daly would return to Crooked Stick only once, later that year.

Ferriell: “He came back to do an outing, I think it was the end of September, and did something for me. I had posters left over from the tournament, and I had this idea, if John would sign ’em, I could sell ’em for a minimum of $100 and start an employee scholarship fund. John sat at my desk and I kept feeding ’em to him. There were at least a hundred of these things. And now we’ve endowed the fund, and the kids of the people here, the waitresses or whoever, have gotten scholarships from it. They’re all on the wall — 59 kids.”

The ensuing 20 years for Daly have brought divorces (four), suspensions, on- and off-course blow-ups and rehab.

Lietzke: “As long as John Daly was at the time, the first couple years Davis Love III was on the Tour, I thought he was just as long. Davis toned it down, but I’m not sure Daly ever learned to do that.”

Fuzzy Zoeller, a friend of Daly’s: “He was one of the first long hitters to come out with that kind of touch and imagination around the green. I would have thought he would have won a lot more with the talent he had.”

Daly: “Yeah, I’ve done some stupid things, some people have done some bad things to me. I’ve gotten a few divorces. It’s not any different than anybody else; mine just gets publicized. That’s what goes with the territory of winning a major or two majors or whatever. People watch what you do. And I was real stubborn back then. I wasn’t going to change anything, and when I did change I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t not be me.”

Nine Lives

Nine players needed to withdraw from or decline an invitation to the 91 ‘PGA for Daly to punch his ticket. Here’s how it happened:

1. Dave Barr — replaced Mark James, who chose to stay in Europe in his quest of qualifying for a spot on the European Ryder Cup Team
2. Keith Clearwater –replaced Lee Trevino, who claimed mental and physical exhaustion
3. Mark Weibe — Buick Open winner Brad Faxon already in the field
4. Bob Wolcott — replaced Gibby Gilbert, who had an inner ear problem
5. Doug Tewell — replaced Paul Azinger, who had not full recovered from shoulder surgery
6. Bill Sander — passed on final spot. Back hurting, and wanted some time off
7. Mark Lye — passed on final spot. Didn’t want to play without a practice round
8. Brad Bryant — passed on final spot. Had some “personal family problems” arise at last minute and went to Texas
9. John Daly — replaced Nick Price, who withdrew Wednesday afternoon to stay with his wife, who had her baby on the following Friday

Source: PGA of America Championship Department