Daly aiming to keep it on course

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Excuse me while I rub my eyes in disbelief.

You see John Daly channel his inner mullet haircut/triple chin days of 1995, shoot double sixes at the same place he won his last major and you wonder, "Can he actually win this thing?"

Nah, right? I mean, it's Daly, the human police report. The guy is a "Maury Povich Show" highlight reel. Mug shots. Divorce courts. Drinking binges.

"I've always kind of been the man that you're supposed to be when you screw up, and I've screwed up an awful lot," Daly said.

Daly, 44, has been a car wreck on the course (nobody phoned it in more than Big John) and a car wreck off it (literally). All of which makes his 6-under-par 66 in the first round of the Open Championship that much more astounding. Check his scorecard? Someone needs to check his ID.

"There's just something peaceful about this place," said Daly of the Old Course. "I remember when I came here in '95. I wasn't playing good golf. I was playing horrible golf. I think I had come off missing a few cuts and didn't know what to expect, but I knew how much I loved this place."

Wait, who is this guy? He doesn't booze it up anymore. He doesn't even drink whole milk. His waist size no longer gets its mail in two zip codes and he seems, well, happy.

In short, the former Wild Thing is considering a new nickname.

"Mild Thing?" he said.

He wasn't mild Thursday. He was -- and here's a word you haven't had to use much with Daly -- magnificent. And he could have been even better. That 66, which puts him in a tie for third and only three strokes off the lead, could have been a 63 or, believe it or not, a record-breaking 62. That's how well he drove the ball and putted.

Daly won here 15 years ago. He's won exactly one tournament since then, in 2004. He's missed 47 of his past 125 cuts and, at times, barely went through the motions. I last saw him selling merchandise near a strip-mall parking lot across the street from the Augusta National property.

Only Daly.

But Thursday he was a different Daly. A changed Daly? Too early to buy a ticket to that movie. Let's see what happens in Round 2, and maybe Rounds 3 and 4, if he makes it that far.

Daly shot 31 on the front, 35 on the back. You heard the roars. You could almost hear his pants, which were louder than a pair of Austin Powers slacks. Daly, who has been making a few cuts lately, referred to them as his "good luck-start pants."

"The good thing about them is you get dressed in the dark, any shirt is going to match," he said.

There's no real reason to think Daly can go low again. He's ranked 455th in the world and has won a grand total of $81,254 on the PGA Tour this season. His best finish is a T-24 and as recently as late January he basically said he wanted to quit the game -- not that the game would have missed him.

Daly's swing is still longer than a speech in Parliament, but when he connects -- as he did Thursday with his driver -- the ball has to file a flight plan with local airports. He took most of the Old Course's fairway bunkers out of play. That's no small thing here. And he putted well, too.

Everyone noticed his score. The galleries. The TV networks. Tiger Woods. How could you ignore a leaderboard that featured the rare sight of Daly on it?

"It's good to be sitting here," said Daly, as he settled into his seat for the post-round interview. "I think this is the first time I've seen the media center at the British Open since '95, who knows."

Few people have taken Daly seriously in recent years, mostly because you weren't sure if Daly was taking himself (or his golf game) seriously. But lap band surgery has dropped his weight to the 190-pound range. He doesn't diet, but he also doesn't pound the booze like Prohibition starts tomorrow.

Daly has lost weight, but he hasn't lost his knack of saying exactly what's on his mind.

"The thing I miss most about having the band put in is I can't drink the vitamin D milk, the whole milk," he said. "I used to drink a half-gallon of that a day. When you used to be as hungover as I used to be, it was great. Got rid of everything."

Everyone laughed. But if he can somehow keep being 1995 Daly, the people at the local Ladbrokes are going to contract nervous tics. Daly was a 200-to-1 long shot Wednesday.

Anything is possible with Daly. His life proves that much. Two majors wins. A thousand defeats and low points.

Daly said he's finally healthy, that he loves the game too much to actually call it quits. That's fine. But now he has to prove it. Daly has talked plenty in the past and not delivered. Another 60-something Friday would talk plenty.

A pair of Scottish teenagers stood behind a small crowd and metal retaining fence just in back of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse at the Old Course. They waved homemade, oversized placards as loud as the pants worn by you-know-who.

The Most Electrifying Man In Sports Entertainment, read the front of one poster. On the back: Daly For President.

"He's a hero," gushed the Scot.

His friend held the other placard high. John Daly -- Living Legend.

But Daly didn't come out of the clubhouse and duck into his courtesy car. Instead, word was he headed to the driving range for more work.

Imagine that: Mild Thing grows a work ethic. Maybe he can win this thing.

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