KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – The cute little girl in the pink hat riding atop her father’s shoulders as he trampled through the dunes left of the 13th fairway had a fair question to ask, and she wanted it answered, too.
“Daddy,” she said in a sweet, tender little voice, “why is that man wearing his pajama bottoms?”
Good question. The man to whom she referred was John Daly. On Thursday at Kiawah Island, regardless of how he was clad (let the record show he sported bright orange pants with white pentagons, certainly not your polyester red Sansabelts of the early ’80s), he certainly was a man worth watching. Daly was in full Grip It/Rip It gear, smashing the driver straight and true at this bomber’s ballpark, and for his omnipresent legion of fans, who hooted and hollered and seemed to stretch all the way across the bridge to the mainland, it made standing under the broiling mid-day sun worth every heated second.
Daly shot 4-under 68 and stayed on the leaderboard a good part of the day, and it was beautiful to watch. Now for a little reality pill: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This guy can be a bigger tease than the grocery store candy aisle. Only twice in his previous 31 rounds at this tournament has he shot in the 60s, and the last time he did, opening with 67 at Southern Hills in 2007, he followed it with a triple dose of 73s.
But we can hope, and we can dream, and on those occasions nowadays when Daly splashes his name onto a leaderboard, the crowds are all in. The people scream for Phil. Enjoy Rory. Respect Tiger. But for the blue-collar set who can remember him crashing golf’s stiff, stodgy party to win two major titles, JD is still their guy. It’s like he said in Reno last week, where he finished fifth: Wherever he tees it up, it’s as if he’s playing a hometown event.
Why such magnetism?
“It’s just like my golf game,” Daly said. “It is up and down, but so is my life, and everybody’s life is up and down. It’s how we battle to get through it, and I think people relate to that.”
The marriages, the divorces, the drinking episodes, the suspensions, the gambling, the tournaments where he packed it in early … all part of the dossier. There seems to be a peace about him these days. He has a steady girlfriend who supports him, has his daughters living with him as he splits time between Arkansas and Florida, and Little John, the son he home-schools, just graduated from third grade.
“I learned a lot,” Daly joked of his home-school tutoring.
Sadly, the checkered past and sometimes circus-esque sideshow can make us forget Daly the golfer, a player who possesses magnificent gifts. Prodigious length, matched at times by a jeweler’s touch around the greens. It was on display Thursday at Kiawah, where several classy pitches reminded us of his great hands. He also seemed fueled by a golf course that let him take the lion cover off his driver and play aggressively.
It started on the very first tee. The fairway is narrow, and there is a steep fall-off along the right side. It’s easy for a player to play conservatively and lay back, hitting fairway metal, but Daly decided he wasn’t going to wait long to grab Kiawah by the scruff of the neck. He smashed a driver, had only a lob wedge left to the green, and though he’d miss his 12-footer for birdie, a tone had been established. He birdied his third hole and never strayed from red numbers. On this day, he was going to be doing the punching.
“It’s just a course,” he said, “I feel I’ve got to take it on.”
He turned at 2 under, and kept it going in the right direction. An eagle at the 593-yard 11th, which he reached with a driver and a 2-hybrid from 254 yards, making a 25-footer; a birdie at the par-4 13th, where he again took on risk by hitting driver and found the fairway; one last birdie at the long 16th, 581 yards with a cross breeze, where he pulverized a 3-wood approach to the front apron, setting up an easy two-putt.
The fans loved every second.
“They seem to like him a lot,” said David Toms, who played alongside. “The kind of golf he plays? Why not? I’d root for him, too, if I wasn’t out here playing. I think everyone knows he has the talent if he keeps his head on straight.”
As well as Daly has played lately – top 25s at FedEx, the Irish Open, Greenbrier and Reno as he crisscrosses the Atlantic playing on two tours – he realized Thursday’s success was only 18 holes, with a long, long ways to go. But he’s riding a nice wave of confidence, and that’s a positive thing.
“We’re never, ever that far,” he said afterward when asked how far away he felt his game was. “I just believe if I keep telling myself, I’ll get to where I want to be.”
Could you imagine the fervor if Daly were in the mix here come Sunday? What if he won? Crazy, right? (“It would be the greatest story in golf ever, wouldn’t it?” said Bud Martin, his longtime manager, who has been there through thick and thin.)
Wouldn’t captain Davis Love III, with four wild-card picks, almost have to invite Daly to his first Ryder Cup? And with three major victories (though he’d have only six total on the PGA Tour), wouldn’t a debate then be sparked about Daly and the Hall of Fame? Riddle me this: Name a modern-day three-time major winner who ISN’T in. Interesting, delicious stuff.
In his office in Pittsburgh, Martin has a picture of Daly standing on the beach at St. Andrews cradling the Claret Jug the morning after the 1995 Open Championship. On Thursday, Martin couldn’t help but drift a few years back as he looked off into the distance toward the crashing ocean waves off the nearby coast at Kiawah.
“Same view,” he said, smiling.
We all can dream.