AS IF he didn’t deliver enough of a shock to the old suits with his Loudmouth blazer at Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner, John Daly added another in yesterday’s opening round.
He did so by playing near-flawless golf.
Now the words “John Daly” and “near-flawless golf” have rarely been uttered in the same sentence for what seemsa lifetime. Truly, the man has been a circus act and no semblance of a golfer for years now. Heck, there’s been just one finish inside the top 20 since 2007, a stretch during which he has competed in just 59 American PGA Tour tournaments and earned a mere $454,587.
At 44, Daly is beyond the crossroads in a career that is often described as a “roller-coaster” ride, though to be honest, in his case, it hasn’t been a balanced ride, because for every up there’s been three or four plummets down. He hasn’t been a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour since 2007, forced instead to rely upon exemptions from sponsors. They arrived on a tidal wave at first, but have since slowed, proof, perhaps, that Daly’s act has worn thin.
What hasn’t evaporated — at least not totally — is his ability to play the Old Course. Indeed, just to be clear: If one would be inclined to think that all links are created equal, a look at Daly’s record would make you change your mind.
The man is playing in his 17th Open Championship. In 13 rounds at St. Andrews he is a combined 13-under; in 38 rounds over places called Muirfield, St. George’s, Turnberry, Lytham, Birkdale, Troon, Hoylake, and Carnoustie he is 121-over.
Forever a welcomed part of the Open Championship scene thanks to his win at St Andrews in 1995, Daly has just two other finishes inside the top 15 — and one of those was at St. Andrews in 2005. He has missed the cut seven times in 13 trips to venues elsewhere than St. Andrews, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he assesses the landscape as one would expect.
“I fell in love with (St. Andrews) in 1994 at the Dunhill Cup when me and Payne (Stewart) and Freddie (Couples) won,” Daly said. “It’s just a great course that I just love. I don’t know why.”
He showed why in his first-round 6 under 66 that matched his lowest-ever Open score. The man can still overpower the place. Beloved that it is, the Old Course is a defenseless piece of real estate when the wind sits down and the sod is softened.
INDEED, on a day when Rory McIlroy shot 63 to set the pace, Daly joined a long line of players getting deep into red numbers. He did so in a pair of what has become his trademark look — Loudmouth pants. On this day, the paisley design was mostly purple, and while they’re not for everyone, Daly explained what appeals to him about them the most.
“The good thing about them is you get dressed in the dark and any shirt is going to match.”
He laughed, something Daly hasn’t done much of in recent years. For that, he owned up. “I’ve never run from my mistakes. I’ve always kind of been the man that you’re supposed to be when you screw up,” he said. “And I’ve screwed up an awful lot. Not just on Tour, but in other aspects of life.”
What Daly has leaned on in recent years is a belief that it’s how you bounce back from adversity. Certainly, from his bouts against alcohol, to his multiple divorces, to his overwhelming gambling debts, to his struggling golf game, Daly has had a lot of practice. Somehow, someway, the fans have waited patiently, and Daly treated them to a day of massive drives, deft touch, creative pitches, and good breaks, all of it adding up to seven birdies against a lone bogey, at the dastardly “Road Hole” 17th.
“Something great was to happen this week when you have so many ups and downs,” Daly said. “But that makes it so much more gratifying when you do something special.”
Having had Lap-Band surgery a few years ago to help lose weight, Daly said he weighs 195 pounds, has far less urge to eat food that is bad for him, and, above all, has stopped drinking. He hardly sounds like the one-man hurricane who seemed hell-bent on creating havoc on golf courses, in casinos, and at hotels. OK, so he may still grip it and rip it, but he’s not the “Wild Thing” anymore is he? Daly smiled.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Mild thing?”
Yeah, that will work, especially here at St. Andrews where his scores are usually down and his spirits up. “There’s just something peaceful about this place,” Daly said.
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