Unlikely story? Daly finds himself on PGA leaderboard

TULSA, Okla. -- There's no sports gambling at the Cherokee Casino Resort -- not that even John Daly would be foolish enough to bet on himself -- but there was enough to keep him busy for a few days while his colleagues were sweltering at Southern Hills Country Club.

It had to be a first in major championship preparation: Playing the slots rather than hitting shots.

Actually, Long John did a little of both in the days leading up to the 89th PGA Championship, although it's safe to say that he dropped far more coins into a machine than he dropped balls on a putting green.

Still, there was Daly, remarkably, on the leaderboard Thursday, shooting 3-under-par 67 on a course he had not seen in 13 years, bombing drives with reckless abandon, and beating the heat by lighting up cigarettes and chugging Diet Pepsi. "It actually works," he said.

Well, it did for one day, anyway.

Daly, 41, trudged off the golf course, shirt untucked and soaked, but leader in the clubhouse. The 67 was his lowest score of a year filled with missed cuts and withdrawals. A shoulder injury suffered in March and more off-the-course headlines because of an alleged spat with his wife have conspired to make this another one of those eye-rolling years.

But none of it was as surprising as much as Daly -- ranked 423rd in the world -- threatening the lead (he ended up two strokes behind Graeme Storm), especially with him lugging around 250 pounds-plus in 100-degree heat.

"There were odds with all the caddies and players this week," Daly quipped. "Who would fall first, me or my caddie [Peter VanDer Riet]. So we made it. We made 18 holes."

Daly made four birdies and a single bogey. At one point, he had six one-putt greens and just 12 for the entire front nine. He managed to hit just six of 14 fairways, but because he was hitting the ball so long, it didn't much matter. He still hit 14 of 18 greens. And he made some bold plays with the driver, including one at the 18th hole where he should have laid up in front of a creek but bombed his tee shot over it.

Not that Daly could remember much of it. "Only had three heat strokes out there," he said.

Because it was so hot, Daly decided not to bother with any practice rounds at Southern Hills, which he had not played since the 1994 PGA Championship. Tulsa is just a couple of hours from his home in Arkansas, so Daly arrived Tuesday and headed for the nearby Cherokee Casino Resort, where he spent the day playing slots.

But the place has a golf course, too, and they gave Daly a cart. That's the way he likes to play golf -- where he also got to wear shorts -- and he took advantage Wednesday for a couple of hours. It was just enough practice, apparently.

"To be honest with you, I was waiting to make a 7 or 8, because that's the way it's been going the last year and a half," said Daly, whose best finish this year is a tie for 16th at the Buick Open in June. "If there was 14 holes on a golf course, I would have won 17 tournaments in the last year and a half. That's the way I look at it.

"Look at my scorecard: one or two bad holes every round. And today was probably the first time in. ... I can't imagine when since that happened."

Just two years ago, Daly was ranked among the top 50 in the world, but things have been bleak lately. He's missed eight cuts and withdrawn from four other tournaments this year in 17 tournaments.

After finishing 192nd on the PGA Tour money list in 2006, Daly lost his full exempt status. But tournaments lined up to give him sponsor exemptions; he had 20 offers by Christmas. The common refrain is that Daly is good for the gate. And there is no doubt he attracts a crowd, as big as any outside of perhaps Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

But Daly has given postal workers a bad name, having mailed it in so often. More than a few tournament directors have grumbled privately about giving him a spot in their field, only to see him go through the motions. At times, Daly has become a carnival act, with his RV parked outside various Hooters restaurants where he signs autographs and sells memorabilia.

That's what he did earlier this year at the Masters, down the street from Augusta National. Daly wasn't in the tournament, but he was in town. If he seems to live in the rough, on the course and off, it's because of the history: three divorces, two trips to alcohol rehab, the tales of enormous gambling losses and PGA Tour suspensions.

Then there was the incident in June at the Stanford St. Jude in Memphis, where he opened the tournament with a respectable 70, then arrived at the course the next day with scratch marks all over his face. Daly called police and accused his wife, Sherrie, of attacking him with a steak knife; she countered that Daly abused her, then covered up by purposely injuring himself.

Daly somehow finished the tournament, and the couple later dropped charges against each other, although they apparently are going through with divorce plans that have been on-again, off-again for more than a year.

"You just keep going," Daly said. "Just gotta keep on plugging and keep going."

Last month at the British Open, Daly led the tournament through 11 holes at 5-under-par, then played the last seven holes in 8 over and missed the cut the next day. He is always one bad shot, one bad hole, from implosion.

So talk of winning a third major championship and sixth overall PGA Tour title seems about as smart as wearing a sweater at Southern Hills.

"It's just one good round of golf," Daly said. "But it's one that I really, really needed."

It is a long-time removed from that magical 1991 PGA, where Daly was the ninth alternate, got into the field at the last minute, drove all night to get to Indianapolis, then became a cult hero by winning at Crooked Stick. The Legend of John Daly was born.

And he didn't have a practice round there, either.

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.