With Daly, looks can be deceiving

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- John Daly is a human car crash. His life has been T-boned, rear-ended and fender-bendered so many times that no body shop will touch him.

Booze. Police mug shots. One-armed bandits.

Smokes. Exile. And wives. Lots of wives. The three exes and the soon-to-be-former Mrs. Sherrie Daly, who just happens to live about 100 yards away from the driving range here at TPC Southwind, where Big John made his 2009 PGA Tour debut Thursday.

Of course, Sherrie isn't allowed anywhere near Daly this week, thanks to a restraining order issued against her. Mr. and Mrs. Drama don't like each other.

Anyway, Daly had to wait until mid-June at the St. Jude Classic because of a six-month, PGA Tour-imposed suspension. He was spending a little too much time in orange jail jumpsuits, which isn't exactly the image the tour is going for. So it banished Daly. Again. And now he's back. Again.

Why will this comeback be any different from his others? Who says it will be different? The one constant in Daly's life is chaos. He always seems to lose a tire, leak a quart of oil, blow a transmission. And out of control he'll go, caroming into self-destruction.

His introduction at the No. 1 tee box at 12:54 on Thursday afternoon was short and sweet: "From Dardanelle, Arkansas," said the announcer, "Johnnnnnnn Daly."

A nod toward the crowd. The hint of a smile. A slow, half practice swing. Behind and to the left of him stood a course ranger holding up a "Hush Y'All" sign.

And then came that signature wild, 80-degrees-past-parallel swing of his, followed by a cherry bomb-like sound of driver striking dimples. The ball disappeared into the hazy, overcast sky and didn't land until 302 yards later. The man can still bruise a golf ball.

He wore a lime green shirt and green, yellow and white argyle pants so loud that orbiting spy satellites could have spotted him. And during his walks down the fairway -- and he was in the middle of them a lot -- a freshly lit Marlboro dangled from his mouth.

If nothing else, he looks different. He had lap-band surgery not long ago and lost 61 pounds in 3½ months. He weighed himself last week: 219 pounds. So thrilled is Daly about his weight loss that he said he has arranged the surgery as a birthday present for his oldest daughter, who just turned 17.

"It's just a technology that you don't have go work out in the gym," he said proudly.

See, this is the problem with Daly. He means well, but the comment reflects a metaphor for his life: He's always trying to cut off as much of a dogleg as possible. Instead of changing the way he eats, drinks and exercises, Daly lets a doctor do it for him.

"I've told you all before, I've wasted a lot of years," Daly said a day earlier. "I enjoyed doing it, but I see these guys work and work and work, and that's what I need to do. I don't think I need to be a Vijay Singh [the legendary driving-range rat] or anything, but I need to work on some things that can make me better."

OK, he's trying, give him that much. He has lost weight and gained a swing coach (the respected Rick Smith, who walked the course during Daly's first round). He needed a sponsor's exemption to play here, but he'll need a lot more to convince the skeptics (hello) who question the life span of this latest Daly rehab.

"What a Hollywood makeover," is how Tim Herron, who was in Daly's pairing, put it. "No, good for him. I mean, at least he's thinking positive, in the right direction."

Daly hasn't won on tour since the 2004 Buick Invitational. He's gone through endorsement deals, coaches and wives as if they were cigarettes. A few puffs and they're gone.

He says golf is his life, but that isn't really true. Bedlam has been his life. Alcohol has been his life. Crash-and-burn moments have been his life. And after each accident he vowed to change. But he never did.

"I don't think he ever had good support behind him in the past," said his girlfriend, Anna Cladakis, as she stood near the practice green. "Hey, he has no regrets, of course. We're on this roller coaster one time and he's experienced everything. And now just everything is clicking. … The package is all there now."

Daly has experienced everything except stability. He turned pro in 1987, won the 1991 PGA Championship with a mullet (and as the ninth and final alternate), won a second major (the British Open) in 1995 and has won exactly one time stateside since. He leaves debris wherever he goes: marriages, divorces, meltdowns, rehabs, WDs, restraining orders.

But this is different. He swears it is. So does Cladakis.

"He hit a little bump in the road," Cladakis said. "But like everybody else in life that can relate, we all get there, but you bounce back. Everybody deserves that chance. I know they say he's had all these chances, but I don't think he had the support behind him to push him down that right road. And now he does."

Daly shot a 2-over-par 72 on Thursday. "The worst I've putted in five years," he said afterward.

He hit 10 of 14 fairways, 12 of 18 greens in regulation. The old Daly might have melted down after sailing his tee shot into the water on the par-3 11th hole. The new and improved Daly got up and down for bogey. Smith was thrilled.

"Fantastic," Smith said. "He's really close."

And then, in something of a shocker, Daly and Smith went directly to the nearly deserted driving range and practice green.

"That is a change," said Smith, who added that Daly is "absolutely reeking of talent."

Talent, yes. Discipline, not so much.

I'd like to believe, but I don't. Not yet, at least. Too many burn marks from previous supposed Daly reincarnations.

"Ever hear of baby steps?" Cladakis said. "It's all good so far."

Baby steps are a start. But baby steps mean something only if they turn into full strides. Daly isn't there yet. He might not ever get there.

Still, wouldn't it be nice if the loudest thing about him were his pants? If we didn't need to fill out any more accident reports on his life? If he could lap-band his demons?

Maybe it will happen. Maybe. That's what passes for optimism these days.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.