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Daly exploded onto golf's scene at '91 PGA

Rovell: The ode to John Daly's popularity

Excesses Undermine Daly's Potential
By Bob Carter
Special to

"What I learned in Betty Ford in '97 is I'm allergic to whiskey is what it pretty much what it amounts to. I don't drink [anymore]. I don't really care about drinking, it's not something I really think about. I just choose not to have a drink today. It's no big deal to me," says John Daly on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Forget the minutiae around John Daly, if it exists at all. Almost everything about the golfing folk hero has arrived in one size: gargantuan. Big swings, often followed by big swigs.

John Daly
John Daly won the 1991 PGA Championship as an alternate at Crooked Stick.
Daly seldom runs out of excesses, and fans seldom give up on the blond-haired, self-taught pro from Arkansas who won their affection in 1991 with a startling, storybook victory in the PGA Championship.

They've stuck by him through two PGA Tour suspensions, two trips to alcohol rehab centers, three failed marriages and countless embarrassing moments.

"Why?" Daly asked rhetorically in 2001. "I've been honest with a lot of the problems I've had in life. Everybody has problems. They can relate to that."

Daly's problems, though, come 12-pack strong. The Tour's longest driver started drinking when he was about nine and began imbibing heavily while in high school in Jefferson City, Mo. He went on frequent binges after his University of Arkansas golf coach demanded that he lose weight, and he destroyed a hotel room in South Africa while drunk. That was merely the beginning.

The man who some thought would grow into a dominating star instead became a sideshow, albeit a most-watched one. If he wasn't drinking, he was gambling or making headlines by walking off the course. Through February 2004, he had won just five Tour events and four world tournaments. But he could belt that ball: He has won 11 PGA Tour driving distance title, including eight straight from 1995-2002.

His brilliance flashed on rare occasions, such as the 1995 British Open, when as a 66-1 betting underdog he won his second Grand Slam title, beating Constantino Rocca in a playoff.

But mostly, Daly delighted galleries with a warm, down-home personality and enormous drives of 300-plus yards, even if he sometimes found the wrong fairways. "I just hit it hard as I can," he said, "and if I find the ball, I hit it again."

In his coiled backswing, the 5-foot-11, 225-pound Daly takes the club far back and well below the normal parallel-to-the-ground point, generating tremendous speed. Grip it and rip it, as he said.

John Patrick Daly was born April 28, 1966, in Carmichael, Calif., the youngest of three children. His father, Jim, did construction work on nuclear power plants, a job that took the family all over the country.

The Dalys moved to Dardanelle, a town of about 3,600 in west-central Arkansas, when John was five. A year later, he got his first clubs. From early on he idolized Jack Nicklaus, whom he watched intently on television. At nine, he could beat his father in golf.

The first two or three drives he hit, I wasn't able to see because the ball came off the club face faster than I was used to.
Bruce Lietzke on John Daly at the '91 PGA
After the family moved to Virginia, a 13-year-old Daly won the men's club championship at his home course in Fredericksburg, rankling older club regulars. Following another move, to Jefferson City, he won the Missouri State High School Tournament and the Missouri Amateur. During his senior year, Daly returned to Dardanelle, where he finished high school, and received a half-scholarship to play golf at the University of Arkansas.

Daly arrived on campus at 235 pounds, and before he could play competitively, his coach, Steve Loy, demanded he lose weight. He did, largely by drinking Jack Daniels and avoiding food. Not a great student, Daly tired of what he called "politics" in the golf program and left Arkansas after his junior year in 1987 to turn pro.

He won $17,000 in six weeks playing small tournaments in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and was hooked. He then traveled to South Africa, where he competed on the Sunshine Tour by day and partied at night. He was on the minor-league Hogan circuit before joining the PGA Tour in 1991.

Daly tied for fourth in the Honda Classic that March and shot a pair of 83s in a forgettable Memorial Tournament before squeezing into the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, near Indianapolis, as the ninth alternate. He had no time to practice, arriving just hours before play started. No matter. The rookie's booming drives proved perfect for the long course, and Daly shot a three-under-par 69 in the first round, two strokes from the front. He took the lead with a 67 the next day and won by three with a 12-under 276.

Those watching were awestruck. "The first two or three drives he hit, I wasn't able to see," said runner-up Bruce Lietzke, "because the ball came off the club face faster than I was used to."

Daly donated $30,000 of his $230,000 first-place money to the children of a spectator who was struck by lightning and killed during the tournament.

Although the victory helped Daly gain endorsement deals worth almost $10 million and win the Tour's Rookie of the Year award, he quickly proved that he wasn't ready for stardom. By the time he got his second Tour win, at the B.C. Open in September 1992, his life had taken several wrong turns. He was disqualified at two international events, once for signing an incorrect scorecard and the other for not signing one at all.

He was charged with assaulting his second wife, Bettye, in a drunken rampage at a Christmas party in 1992. Though he and Bettye insisted he didn't hit her -- the charge later was dropped when he pled guilty to harassment -- Daly made his first trip to rehab 10 days later. After a 3-week stay, he soon began frequenting bars with his buddies, watching them drink, and skipped his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He replaced beer and Jack Daniels with Diet Cokes, candy and heavy gambling. "Cross-addictions," he called them later.

After Daly picked up his ball when he was playing poorly in the second round at the Kapalua International in November 1993, Tour commissioner Deane Beman suspended him for three months.

The following May, he won the BellSouth tournament, but soon he was back to drinking heavily. That fall, Reebok temporarily suspended his endorsement deal.

John Daly
John Daly claimed his second Grand Slam title in the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews.
By July 1995, Daly was married again -- to third wife Paulette -- and sober when he won the British Open at St. Andrews in Scotland. "There's just something about this golf course I love," said Daly, who warmed to the old course's wide fairways.

Four strokes behind going into the final day, Daly shot a 71 while third-round leader Michael Campbell faded with a 76. The title seemingly in hand, he watched Rocca sink a 65-foot putt on the 18th to tie at 282. Daly then won the four-hole playoff by four strokes, shooting one under.

The next summer, Daly was seen in public hugging a bottle and admitted to "social" drinking. With the downward spiral revived, all the old nightmares, plus a few new ones, came calling. There were early withdrawals from tournaments, club throwing, bouts of depression, casino gambling that left him $2.6 million in debt, a trip to the hospital after a 10-hour drinking marathon, an on-course shaking episode in Vancouver on a summer day, lost endorsement deals, another wife filing for divorce, another trip to rehab.

Predictably, his golf game plummeted, too. Daly missed 11 cuts in 22 Tour events in 1999 and missed 16 in 26 the following year when he ranked 188th and had $115,460 in winnings.

In late 2000, he again stopped drinking, and enjoyed a comeback in 2001, placing 61st on the Tour money-earnings list with a career-high $828,914. He gained his first victory in six years, winning the BMW International in Germany in September.

Daly, who had married his fourth wife, Sherrie Miller, in the summer, said he went the entire year without a drink. "I don't have a desire to drink, but I leave my options open," he said. "I might have a beer or two or three someday, but I don't think about it. I don't consider myself an alcoholic."

In 2003, Daly learned Sherrie and her parents had been indicted on federal drug and gambling charges, just five days after she gave birth to his first son. His game was in disarray, plunging him to No. 299 in the world ranking. His life was a mess again.

But just as people wrote him off, Daly bounced back. He won the Korean Open on the PGA Tour, the Callaway Golf Pebble Beach Invitational and teamed with Peter Jacobsen and Mark Calcavecchia to win the Wendy's Three-Tour Challenge.

Then in February 2004, he gained his first PGA Tour victory in almost nine years and 189 Tour events as he took first in the Buick Invitational in a sudden-death playoff.

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