JOHN DALY – STILL HITTING IT HARD
Headlines follow John Daly like a shadow. Even on the laid back PGA Tour Champions, the ‘The Wild Thing’ is attracting huge crowds wanting to see the long ball – and the next ‘incident’.
Rick Weber speaks exclusively to ‘The Wild Thing’ who, even on the Champions Tour, is still attracting hordes of people wanting to see the long ball and the next ‘incident’.
It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that John Daly has disgraced the game of golf. He has been cited by the PGA Tour 11 times for “conduct unbecoming a professional” and 21 times for “failure to give best eort”.
His history in Australia is an incriminating microcosm of his colourful career: at the 2002 Australian PGA, he threw his putter into a lake and stormed o the course without signing his card, drawing a disqualification and a fine; at the 2008 Australian Open, he grabbed a fan’s camera and smashed it into a tree trunk; and finally, at the 2011 Australian Open, he deposited seven balls into a lake on the 11th hole, stormed o the course, was banned from the Australian PGA Championship two weeks later and was called “unprofessional” by Trevor Herden, Golf Australia’s director of tournaments.
It would be dicult to choose his most memorable meltdown on the PGA Tour. “Wild Thing” was in vintage form at the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, when he hit three balls into the water on the par-3 7th hole and wildly slung his 6-iron into Lake Michigan. But he probably peaked 17 years earlier at the Bay Hill Invitational, when he posted what could be an all-time record of 18 strokes—the PGA Tour does not keep records of single-hole disasters—after hitting six consecutive balls into the water on the par-5 6th hole, then quipped, “I got a lot of practice with my 3-wood.”
And that’s only a glimpse into his on-course behaviour. We haven’t even discussed the four failed marriages, the trashed house in Colorado, the trashed RV in San Antonio, the overnight jail stay in North Carolina after passing out at Hooters, the alcohol-fueled bouts of severe depression, two stints in rehab and the descend-into-hell gambling misadventures that he admits resulted in US$53 million in losses.
And yet, when he became eligible for PGA Tour Champions on April 28, 2016, the tour did everything but buy him every Hooters joint on
American soil and put his face on the orange sign, right next to the iconic owl with its boob-shaped eyes.
This is a tour desperately in need of some pizazz. It started out with showmen like Chi Chi Rodriguez and quickly deteriorated into a procession of solemn, Metamucil-mandated mercenaries grinding relentlessly and grimly in a bid to add to their wealth. Bernhard Langer is a masterful golfer, but there is no visceral thrill in watching the 59-year-old version of him clinically carving up courses and the opposition.
People love to watch John Daly, even if it’s with the same guilty pleasure of watching blood spatter in a UFC ring. Sure, Daly hits the ball into the heavens and wears psychedelic pants, but he’s wildly entertaining. You never know what will happen when Daly tees it up, and the sweet anticipation of that mystery has driven the tour to greater heights.
********* It is just minutes after the Thursday pro-am at the Chubb Classic in Naples, Florida. Daly had indicated to a PGA Tour Champions ocial during the round that he wouldn’t consent to an interview with Golf Australia, but he has changed his mind. Maybe he wants to clear the air. Four days earlier at the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, his peaceful stay on the PGA Tour Champions was rocked by another trademark Daly incident. During the final round, he was struggling with his golf and his sciatic nerve. After back-to-back bogeys, his putter found its way into the lake and he walked o the course without speaking.
Although there remarkably was no video of the incident, a fan took a photo of the putter in the water and there were reports that Daly was “visibly frustrated”.
Asked about the incident, Daly says he just “flipped” it to his caddie, Peter Van Der Riet, who was carrying Daly’s yardage book and lob wedge in his hands.
“I just kind of went behind the back, a little toss,” he says. “It went past Peter’s right shoulder, landed on the ground and bounced in the water.” That’s really what happened? “If I’m going to throw a putter, I’m going to throw it 60 yards into the lake and it’s going to be in two pieces,” he says. “That was a very special putter to me. It was a Ping putter that John Solheim gave to me. It was the 50th anniversary. I would never have done that on purpose. That was just a freak accident. My fault. I didn’t know Peter had all that crap in his hand.
“Usually when I toss it behind my back, he catches it, but he wasn’t even looking. It went right by his shoulder, bounced on the ground and went in the water. We’re looking down like its six feet down there, we can’t even get the putter. So I told Ryan, the head pro, ‘Go get it.’ Unfortunately, a spectator must have jumped in and got it. I’d like to have it back if I could get it back.”
An innocent “freak accident”? Or the return of the petulant, disgrace-the-game Daly? Either way, life on this tour was supposed to be a rebirth for him, and it really hasn’t worked out that way.
In 2016, he couldn’t manage a single top-10 finish in 15 starts. His best finish was T11 at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in July, when he won $44,000. He withdrew from one tournament and cobbled together five top-25s to rank 71st on the money list with US$193,661. And his first four tournaments of 2017 produced T17, T23, WD and T30.
You ask him if he thinks he can bring some excitement to the dour tour and he shoots back, “Well, I need to play better. I’m struggling with the game a little bit,” he says.
“The putter’s been down. I’m hitting the new driver. I mean, if I was hitting the irons as good as I know I can and my wedges, it would be a lot of fun because I’m hitting a lot of fairways with the driver. Even if I just barely miss one, it’s still out there 320. Out here, that’s good because the courses are a lot shorter than what we play on the tour. My wedge game isn’t where it needs to be and the putter has just been cold.”
Not everybody is thrilled that Daly has arrived on this tour. Some golfers who value the game’s tradition and ethics aren’t so sure it’s a great thing. Woody Austin has publicly questioned Daly’s desire, wondering whether he has a “fight meter”. You ask two-time US Open winner Lee Janzen if he’s bothered by Daly’s history of WDs and he says, “Well, I don’t know what he feels like. I’d have to feel what his own body feels like. But often, if he would just stick it out, even if he’s having a bad day … Because the fans love to watch him. They don’t even care what he shoots.”
And he is right about that. Earlier in the pro-am, Daly’s gallery was at least five times larger than anybody else’s. He signed everything that was placed in front of him and tolerated fans who wanted to pose with him for photos but didn’t even know how to operate their iPhone.
“It’s been good,” he says of the fans on PGA Tour Champions. “It’s not as rowdy, but I think it’s … going to be a little older crowd. But they know golf. They’re not going to clap for a bad shot. They’ll clap for a good one, but if you hit one bad, it’s almost like playing in Europe.”
And he clearly puts a premium on interacting with his pro-am partners and making sure their day is what they dreamed of.
On the 18th tee, playing partner Sam Lin brought Daly a cap and said it was from a boy who wanted it signed. Lin pointed out the boy in the crowd.
“Good work, Sammy,” Daly said. “You finally did something right today.” Both of them roared with laughter. After their round was over, Lin gushed about Daly’s approachability.
“I never met him before, but he’s an easy guy to get to know,” he says. “You just have to talk about the things he likes to talk about. We were just shooting the breeze. We had a lot of time talking. I think its John’s personality. You have to know the way he talks. He jokes a lot, and so does his caddie.”
The big question: When the initial buzz fades, will Daly even be relevant? He’ll have to do more than just show up in those loud pants, with a cigarette dangling from his lips like another J.D.—James Dean.
That J.D. died prematurely in his Porsche 550 Spyder, which reportedly was going 137km/hr on California Route 466. And for many observers, it’s amazing the present-day J.D. hasn’t su£ered a tragic, before-his-time death.
It almost ended for him in 1997. Daly, unable to deal with the instant success of his 1991 PGA Championship victory as the ninth alternate
IF I WAS HITTING THE IRONS AS GOOD AS I KNOW I CAN ... IT WOULD BE A LOT OF FUN BECAUSE I’M HITTING A LOT OF FAIRWAYS WITH THE DRIVER ... IT’S STILL OUT THERE 320.
or the expectations created by his 1995 British Open win, sat alone in his Mercedes, revving the engine. Just a few feet away was a steep cli£ in Palm Springs. He called former NFL star Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson—with whom he forged a friendship after they met in alcohol rehab in 1992—and said, “There will be no more John Daly tomorrow.” Hollywood talked Long John out of shifting into ‘drive’ and slamming the accelerator.
Good friend Fuzzy Zoeller once bet Daly US$150,000 that Daly would not live to 50. It was a rather odd bet—there was no way Daly would have to pay, even if he lost. And when Daly turned 50, he let Zoeller o£ the hook by accepting a bottle of Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka.
Now, to be sure, 1.75L of 80 proof liquor is not exactly what Daly needs—not after a life that went o£ the rails with alcohol addiction that sent him to rehab twice. But that’s the Wild Thing’s mentality. He brags about beating Andrew “Beef” Johnston in a whiskey-drinking contest at the 2015 Turkish Airlines Open. He su£ered a collapsed lung in 2015, but he tried to convince his fans that he was going to be OK because he was reducing his smoking—from three packs a day to two. And his gambling is “under control” because he has ditched the $5000 slot machines for the $25 variety.
A few years ago, Daly ran into his old buddy Bill Hughes, who was the general manager at TPC Southwind in Memphis when Daly was a member there in the late 1990s. Hughes asked Daly how he was doing.
“I came into this world with nothing and I’m going to go out with nothing,” Daly said, “and I’m going to have one helluva time in between.”
Daly loves meeting with his fans when he sets up shop in Augusta during Masters week.