Daly’s course takes an upswing

Some of the most encouraging news in golf recently has come from John Daly, the exuberant, larger than life player whose personal problems have been well chronicled over the years. Daly, 35, has had some strong tournaments, including a fifth-place tie in Memphis the week prior to the U.S. Open. That moved him to 62nd on the PGA Tour money list, higher than anytime since March 1998. He also shot a third-round 63 in Memphis to move into contention in the tournament. Daly could go low again, in every sense.

Daly has long been one of golf’s most interesting and appealing players. I first encountered him at the 1991 PGA Championship in Indianapolis. He hit the ball miles and putted beautifully at that major championship, and day-by-day he became more and more a fan favourite. That year Daly came up the final hole at the Crooked Stick Golf Club with the championship well in hand. He pumped his arm faster and faster as he neared the green, while tens of thousands of fans cheered. Golf fans had found a new hero, one who hit the ball hard and fast and who played quickly. This was in the pre Tiger Woods era, when golf fans were looking for somebody to capture their attention in a b way.

That championship was memorable for Daly and his new followers around the world. But it wasn’t long before he was falling into a hole from too much drinking, from marital problems, too much gambling. His outsize personality was there for all of us to see, and we felt sorry for him. Daly got involved in Alcoholics Anonymous, but that didn’t help him. He signed a four-year contract in May 1997 to play Callaway clubs, which stipulated that he could neither drink nor gamble, and also that he must take psychiatric help.

Binge drinking
But that relationship ended after Daly went on a drinking binge in the late spring of 1999. It appeared that Daly was falling far from the heights he had reached in golf, and nobody knew how far he might fall. There’d been speculation that he was suicidal, and he had as much as admitted it. But what, really, could anybody do? Daly bursted with energy and couldn’t be contained. Not until he wanted to do the containing, that is. Not until he took the lead in his own struggle.

Eventually Daly withdrew from AA, and sought his own counsel. He couldn’t harness himself by forcing himself not to drink, and decided that a drink here and there wouldn’t hurt. By then he had gone off the many medications he was taking and, he said, made him feel terrible. His energy returned. Somehow his self-destructive tendencies softened, as did his propensity for extreme gambling.

He was always a gentle soul, and it was easy to read the hurt he was feeling. I interviewed him for television during one Air Canada Championship in Vancouver, where he was the crowd favourite. He spoke emotionally about his problems, and about how much he appreciated the support of golf fans the world over. Since 1991, of course, he had won another major, the 1995 British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews.

Signs of improving
But since then, not much of any good had happened for him on the course, or off it. Last year he finished 188th on the money list, his worst result since starting the PGA Tour full-time in 1991, the year of his superb coming-out party at the PGA Championship. Still, there were signs things were improving, particularly in his weight loss of 30 pounds. He still blew up in other ways, though-big numbers on some holes in tournaments. There was a 14 on the last hole of the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in the first round, which followed a dead-last finish in the Open the year before, where he had batted the ball around on a slope near one green, losing it, or so it appeared.

This year, however, one could see the improvement in his golf, the inner change now being expressed in an external manner through his improved golf. He still hit the ball miles, but was mostly under control on the course. Off the course he had become engaged, and lost his craving for alcohol-who knows how, and he prefers not to talk about it. And, as he told Sports Illustrated, “I’ve fallen in love with golf again.”

That’s wonderful news, for Daly, obviously, and for the game as a whole. He said in Memphis that a win there would have meant more to him that his two majors, because it would signify how much he had overcome. Daly didn’t win there, but it certainly seems he’s getting close to winning again.

Wouldn’t it be tremendous if, one fine Sunday, he and Woods come down the final hole in a tournament battling one another for the lead? We all know who the logical favourite would be, but Daly defied logic when he won the 1991 PGA Championship. Who knew him then? Now we know what he can do on the course and he’s showing us again. It’s not illogical to think he will win again, and wouldn’t that be something?