2004: Daly’s talent again rises above tribulations

By Dave Seanor

La Jolla, Calif.

Is this a great game, or what?

Just when everyone expected Tiger vs. Vijay, we were treated to the resurrection of Long John Daly instead.

For 8 years, 6 months and 22 days, Daly’s foibles had overshadowed his immense talent. That’s how much time had passed – 189 starts – since his last visit to the PGA Tour winner’s circle.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs in those 10 years,” said Daly, embellishing the time span since his British Open victory but hardly understating the circumstances. “I just kept fighting and plugging away.”

Daly’s perseverance paid off on Feb. 15 at the Buick Invitational. His 10-under-par 278 total and one-hole playoff victory over Luke Donald and Chris Riley was Daly at his best, an enviable combination of raw power off the tee and precision around the greens.

“Obviously, it was John Daly-esque,” said Donald, who birdied the 72nd hole to make the playoff but couldn’t get his 6-foot birdie putt to drop on the 73rd.

“It was something I’ll always remember,” said Riley, who also made birdie on the last hole of regulation, only to have his 5-foot birdie attempt horseshoe around the cup in the playoff.

The first hint that something special was in store for Daly came Thursday, when he birdied four of the last five holes on Torrey Pines North and posted a 69.

He began to catch people’s attention with a bogey-free, second-round 66 on the much-harder South Course that tied him for second, two shots behind Stewart Cink. Notably absent among the leaders were Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods.

Singh shot 71-73, an even-par total that ended his consecutive top-10 streak at 12 and his cuts-made streak at 25. A rusty Woods was six shots off the pace after 71-68.

Woods said he had not yet found his competitive edge after a four-week layoff, “that flow of judging your distances when you’ve got a little more adrenaline in your system, and having to make crucial shots, crucial putts.”

Instead, it was Daly who consistently came through under pressure. Most memorable will be the 256-yard 2-iron he drilled to the 18th hole on Saturday, setting up the 30-foot eagle putt that gave him the 54-hole lead, and the 265-yard 3-wood he hit on the same hole during the playoff.

Most gratifying, however, was his short game. Daly was 11 of 13 in sand saves over 73 holes, capped by a 27-yarder he feathered to tap-in range for the winning playoff birdie. Thanks to his deft chipping and sand play, he took only 105 putts in regulation – including 23 in Round 2.

Daly also has learned to resist the urge to grip it and rip it. “Everything is pretty much a three-quarters shot now,” he said.

Thus his final-round 75 was more workmanlike than heroic. At another time and place, his double-bogey at the par-3 third hole – which dropped him temporarily into second place, a shot behind Cink – might have caused him to implode. Instead, Daly told caddie Peter Van Der Riet, “we can still win. That was a crucial, crucial putt. I know it was for double bogey, but it kept me going.”

As Daly was playing No. 15, tied with Riley at 10 under par, 15 players were within two shots of the lead. That group included Woods, who had four birdies in a five-hole stretch beginning at No. 6.

“I’ve never won a tournament that had Tiger in the field,” Daly said. “That feels good. And this field this week was one of the strongest fields we can have.”

To which Singh can attest. While Daly was marching to victory Sunday, Singh was pounding balls on the range, opting to stay at Torrey Pines and practice before heading to the Nissan Open in Los Angeles.

“I like to feel the tournament atmosphere when I’m practicing,” said Singh. “And you know what? I got a great tip today: It was meant to happen. It’s fate. It’s all fate.”

Both Singh and Woods agreed it was unrealistic to expect a clash of titans every time they’re at the same tournament.

“It’s probably not going to happen as many times as people might think,” said Woods. “Because it’s golf. You’ve got 154 other guys in the field. It’s just too hard to have the top two guys play well every week.

“You didn’t see Watson and Nicklaus or those guys going after it every single week. It happened every once in a while, maybe once or twice a year.”

Singh shot himself in the foot early when he failed to make hay at the easier North Course in Round 1, taking 35 putts in his opening 71.

“It’s the first encounter I’ve had with Tiger in a full-field event (this year). . . . There’s bigger tournaments to come,” Singh said. “In one way I’m happy the streak has come to an end. Now people aren’t going to talk about the streak instead of talking about how I’m playing. I just feel like I can focus on what I’m doing more intensely now.”

Even Woods wonders how that could be possible.

“I don’t see how you could stay mentally fresh. For me, I can’t,” Woods said. “. . . I could not do what Vijay does, hit that many golf balls after every tournament round, play as many tournaments as he does. He’s able to maintain that high for a long period of time. If I did that, I would break down because I would start losing my focus.”

Which Woods can’t afford to do if he expects to maintain his position as world No. 1.

“I think it’s a fun time in golf right now because there are a lot of different challengers out there,” Woods said.

Including a rejuvenated John Daly.

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