John Daly -- an Augusta fixture gone wrong - NBC Sports

John Daly -- an Augusta fixture gone wrong
Legendary golfer spends Masters weekend selling T-shirts instead of swinging clubs.
AP Photo
April 11, 2014, 3:15 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. –- Washington Road on Masters week never changes. Yes, stores flip from time to time, one business closes and another reopens, a construction site covers an old K-Mart, a pawnshop replaces a tire store, one chain restaurant subs in for another. But the heartbeat of Washington Road remains constant. It is traffic and strip malls and signs hovering like rain clouds and stoplights and traffic cops and tents and concrete grayness.

People who come to the Masters for the first time have a hard time harmonizing the commercial unpleasantness of Washington Road with the gorgeousness of the Augusta National they have seen on televisions while a piano tinkles in the background.

And Hooters. That is one mainstay of Washington Road. They built the Hooters about 20 years ago … I was the sports columnist for the Augusta newspaper when it opened. The Hooters is a short walk from Augusta National, and many people will note the irony of that, if there is irony in that.

In front of the Hooters on Masters week is a bus, and in front of the bus is long orange table, and in front of the table is a man who in a weird way has become another mainstay of Washington Road.

In front of the bus in front of the Hooters, John Daly sells merchandise and poses for photographs and talks to his fans who, even after all these years, still want the best for him.

***

WE WERE BOTH 25 the year we came to Augusta for our first Masters. That was 1992. I was a 25-year old kid who had just joined The Augusta Chronicle newspaper; I knew almost nothing about golf. John Daly was a 25-year-old kid who had just set the golf world on fire by blistering the field at the 1991 PGA Championship. He won mainly by hitting balls so far that professional golfers could only watch with their mouths wide open.

I met Daly at Doral in Miami that year -- the Doral Open it was called then. It was the first professional golf tournament I had ever attended, much less covered. I was there with the Augusta Chronicle’s legendary golf writer David Westin; our job was to talk to many, many golfers and write preview stories about them for the massive and comprehensive Augusta Chronicle Masters section. Westin and I basically wrote preview stories about every golfer back then.

David knew the golfers. I knew nothing.  So, being the veteran scribe that he was, David made up a list of golfers for each of us to talk with. He took the golfers who were nice and accommodating and easy to work with, and he stuck me with everyone else. I spent much of the week listening to golfers snap, “I’m not thinking about the Masters yet!” or offering to possibly meet them at some place at some time – they couldn’t PROMISE they would show up but they might.

Somehow, I ended being responsible for the John Daly preview story. My suspicion – David won’t confirm this – is he figured Daly would be a pain in the neck to deal with. He was a golfing phenomenon already. Let the rookie handle it. I easily found Daly on the driving range; he was the one surrounded by people. I somehow made my way through to introduce myself and tell him that I needed five or 10 minutes so I could write something about him leading into the Masters.

“Yeah, tell you what, just meet me at the pro-am tomorrow morning,” he said. I nodded and he walked off. I quickly found David Westin.

“What’s a pro-am?” I asked him.

***

HARD TO BELIEVE, yes, but 23 years have drifted by since John Daly obliterated Crooked Stick Golf Club at the 1991 PGA Championship and changed the entire orientation of professional golf. It is all but impossible to believe a movie hasn’t been made about it.

You certainly know the story: Daly was a struggling golf pro. He had needed four trips to Q-School, where people qualify for the PGA Tour. He finally got through but wasn’t getting anywhere. One week before the PGA he had shot a second-round 75 to miss the cut at the Buick Open. It was his eighth missed cut that year.

By way of comparison, Tiger Woods has missed nine cuts in his ENTIRE CAREER.

 It goes without saying that Daly had not qualified for the PGA Championship that year – he was the ninth alternate. As in: ninth. He needed an almost unprecedented series of lucky breaks and freak occurrences just to get into the PGA. Well, it all happened, the last break being a last-minute withdrawal of Nick Price, whose wife Sue had a baby just as the tournament was about to begin.

Daly drove more than 500 miles from his home in Arkansas to Carmel, Ind., on the hunch that he might get into the field. He showed up at the golf course on Thursday having never seen it before. Caddie Jeff Medlin – who was normally Nick Price’s caddy – took him on; Medlin had no idea who he was. But once he saw John Daly hit a golf ball, he knew what to say. He kept telling Daly, ‘Kill it, John.” So Daly killed it. His round was stopped by rain; on Friday morning he finished his first round at 69. He was in contention.

Then he grabbed a sandwich, got back on the course, and shot 67 to take the lead.

Nobody had ever seen anything quite like John Daly at Crooked Stick. Mere mortals had bunkers and narrow fairways to contend with. Daly did not even see those. He was looking past all that. His ball flew over anything resembling danger. He hit golf balls distances no professional golfer ever had, and he breezed down the fairway, high-fiving the gallery as he bounced by.

Daly had taught himself how to swing a golf club by banging away at golf balls on a nine-hole course without a bunker in the little town of Dardanelle, Ark. He had patterned his swing after Jack Nicklaus diagrams in Golf Digest. He was too damned stubborn to let any golf pro or golf coach tell him what he was doing wrong.

He employed a ju-jitsu golf move that people would call “Past Parallel.” On his backswing, he would bring the club back so far that it would be parallel to the ground (where golfers had almost always stopped) and then just keep on going, like a pinball machine turning over and tilting. Golf expert after golf expert explained why going past parallel was a dangerous and unsound thing to do. But John Daly didn’t listen to golf experts.

On the third day, he shot 69 and had a three-shot lead. He celebrated that night by going to an Indianapolis Colts preseason game. He was brought on the field and introduced at halftime and the fans went bonkers when they saw him. Nobody could remember the last time anyone went bonkers over a professional golfer.

On Sunday, Daly came to the course and saw a simple four-word note on his locker: “Go get ’em John.” That was from Jack Nicklaus. Daly swallowed hard and realized that this was kind of a big deal. He hit his first shot into the woods but then said to himself, “No, no, you’re not doing this.” He settled down. He won by three shots. It was the most unlikely golf victory in probably 75 years.

“How would you describe the way you play golf?” he was asked.

“Grip it and rip it,” he said.

Daly high-fived so many people that PGA Championship week, his hands hurt for a week.

***

BACK IN MIAMI, seven or so months after he became a star, I showed up in the morning to talk to John Daly at the Doral Open pro-am. I quickly realized that it was hopeless. Fans were mobbing him. Everybody wanted to talk to him, to get a photo with him, to take a photo with him.

There’s no doubt that Tiger Woods’ victory at the 1997 Masters had an earth-shaking effect on golf – prize money skyrocketed, television ratings skyrocketed, golf became cool to people who had never before cared for golf. But John Daly, for his short time at the top after Crooked Stick, was the most beloved golfer I have seen since Arnold Palmer. He was an underdog and a renegade, a rebel and the guy you wanted to go drinking with, an impossibly talented golfer and a good ol’ boy. He was Elvis. People would come to golf tournaments just to scream “You da man!” after he crushed one of his absurd drives.

He was already fighting demons. According to Daly’s autobiography, “My Life in and out of the Rough,” Daly’s father, Jim, bought John his first golf clubs and he could be a fun guy when he wasn’t drinking. But when he did drink, Jim Daly was mean and out of control. John had his father’s weakness. He was disqualified from a junior tournament when a bottle of Jack Daniel’s was found in his golf bag. He would say that by the time he won the PGA, he was drinking a fifth of Jack Daniel’s every day. One night while playing on the Hogan Tour – sort of a minor-league tour – he passed out and was rushed to the hospital. His friends thought he’d had a stroke.

“The next day,” Daly would write in his autobiography, “I shot two-under.”

His story was so overpowering, so extraordinary, that nobody was looking for warning signs. Other golfers were somewhat in awe of him. Jack Nicklaus told me that no player’s game was ever better suited for a golf course than John Daly’s game was for Augusta National. And the fans simply could not get enough of him; he wasn’t just a new star, he was a sensation, a mania.

“Hey!” John Daly yelled across the course. I looked around to see who he was yelling at.

“Hey!” he shouted again. “Yeah! You! Augusta. Get over here.”

Everybody turned around and looked at … me. I got over there.

“Walk with me,” Daly said and he lifted the gallery ropes. We would talk while he played.

***

HERE'S HOW John Daly sums up his life in his autobiography.

I’ve traveled to six continents – and won golf tournaments on five of them.

In my darker days, I had a few drinks, visited a few hospital ERs, and did time in a couple of rehab clinics.

I’ve beat up hotel rooms, houses, and cars.

I’ve gambled away a couple of fortunes.

I live on Diet Coke, Marlboro Lights, and the support of my fans.

I’ve weighed as much as 290 pounds—and lost as much as 65 in three months.

And I’ve been married four times.

I guess you could say I’m not exactly a poster boy for moderation.

***

WHAT IS TALENT? This is a complicated question, actually, something that scouts and recruiters and business leaders study endlessly. But if talent refers to a natural aptitude for something, if it refers to an unexplainable gift for making something very difficult look and seem very easy … then there’s a case to be made that John Daly is the most talented golfer who ever lived.

Think about it. John Daly set his life on a one-way course for self-destruction. He was served divorce papers at Augusta one year. He has admitted to losing $50 million gambling. His Wikipedia page, like most of them, has a section called: Personal Life. The subheads underneath tell the tale:

7. Personal life

7.1 Alcohol

7.2 Health

7.3 Gambling

7.4 Marriages

7.5 Lawsuits

And yet, still, he not only won that amazing PGA Championship, he also won the British Open – Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer did pull off that double. Daly won his British Open at the most prestigious course on earth: The Old Course at St. Andrews. The last 40 years, the winners at St. Andrews have been: Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Louie Oosthuizen and, yes, John Daly.

He won three other PGA Tour events too. His extraordinary power off the tee was matched by a shockingly soft touch around the greens; Daly was an artist when chipping and putting the ball.  He always played extremely fast, like he was playing in a heavy rainstorm, and on the right day, in the right moment, he hit shots other people only dreamed of hitting.

I saw it all up close that day at the Doral Open pro-am. He had a cigarette in his mouth and he was barely paying attention to anything but the fantastic stories he was telling. “Excuse me for a minute,” he would say and he would walk over to the tee or the fairway or the green. And then, more often than not, he would hit an extraordinary shot. Once, he excused himself, climbed into a fairway bunker, did not even look at his target, swung and hit one of the most remarkable shots I’ve ever seen – a majestic bunker shot that landed on the green, hesitated and then rolled up to the hole like a child running to a parent at the airport. The ball stopped two inches from the hole.

Daly nodded, stepped out, walked over and continued the story exactly where he left off.

***

JOHN DALY STILL GETS INVITED to play in a lot of tournaments. It has been a decade since he won on the PGA Tour – and in that decade he has finished top 10 nine times and shot 80 or worse 19 times. But on occasion he can still do magical things. And people, many people, sponsors and fans and yes media types, have always wanted to believe the best about John Daly, have always wanted to believe in a comeback.

He had actually been playing OK this year – he made two cuts in his first five tournaments and had almost matched his 2013 earnings – until his last tournament. He went to the Valspar Open in Tampa Bay in mid-March, struggled to a 74 in the first round and then completely unraveled with a second-round 90. He would say he had the putting yips. He four-putted one hole, made 12 on another.

Daly talked hopefully about his game coming around in a sit-down interview with the Guardian; the news from the interview that was widely reported, though, was that he was smoking 40 cigarettes and was sucking down 10 to 12 cans of Diet Coke per day. When I saw him Thursday he inhaled a Diet Coke through a straw as if he was taking his last breath.

I’ve interviewed John numerous times since we walked the pro-am in Miami. He always has been engaging. He always has spoken hopefully about the future and he has never made excuses about the past. One time he broke out into a country song he wrote in the middle of an answer – he writes songs and has released an album. Another time, he talked about a plan of some sort to help children. Another time he explained to me how he had given up drinking and it was only a matter of days or weeks before he was taken into protective custody when police found him drunk outside a Hooters.

It’s so tempting to try to imagine what John Daly might have done had he overcome his demons, had he grown his gifts, had he … well … had he been someone other than John Daly.

***

THERE IS ONE fun little twist to the John Daly pro-am story. On the fourth or fifth hole, can’t remember which, one of the people in John Daly’s pro-am group started getting kind of ticked off that Daly was ignoring him and talking to this stupid reporter. That person: Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

“Hey!” Marino yelled at me. “Some of us paid money to play with John Daly.”

In retrospect, I can’t blame the guy. He did pay money to play with Daly. But I was young then, still unaccustomed to getting yelled at by athletes, especially great ones, and I looked around for a hole to crawl into. In that moment John Daly turned to Dan Marino and did something I will never forget.

“Hey Dan,” he said. “You ARE playing with me.” And he turned back to tell me another story.

And so I like him. I will always like him. He was and is an addict for whatever vice happens to be in play. He has obviously done a lot of things he is ashamed of doing. But in my experiences I’ve seen him be nice to people. I’ve heard him spill his heart out again and again. He was given a great gift, and he was given crushing flaws, and he has spent his life trying to find someplace to live between the two.

“Hey, great to see you,” John Daly said to me as he stood in front of the Hooters Thursday during the first round of the Masters. I have no illusion that he remembered me. There were 15 or 20 people gathered around his bus, searching through his table of shirts and hats and golf balls and autographed pictures. A guy asked if he could have his picture taken with Daly.

“Buy something,” the woman next to him said, “and he’ll be happy to take a photo.”

I bought an orange shirt. It says “John Daly” in script and has a sketch of a lion swinging a golf club. The lion, of course, is taking the club way past parallel.

“Can I have a bag to put this in?” I asked.

“Sure,” John Daly said. “As long as you don’t mind it being a Hooters bag.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



Channel Finder