Daly returns to Arkansas to help N’wide event

John Daly, right, during the pro-am for the Nationwide Tour's Fort Smith Classic.

John Daly, right, during the pro-am for the Nationwide Tour's Fort Smith Classic.

FORT SMITH, Ark. – While most of the golf world is focused on the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, there’s a two-time major winner feeling right at home at a struggling event on the Nationwide Tour.

John Daly is back in Arkansas to play in the Fort Smith Classic this week, and he hopes his presence can help the tournament attract attention from sponsors. Daly is from Dardanelle, about 75 miles from Fort Smith, and he’s looking forward to playing close to home.

In fact, he’s looking forward to playing, period. It doesn’t matter that this is the Nationwide Tour, where Daly hasn’t played since 1991 – shortly before his stunning victory at the PGA Championship.

“I’m just ready to play. It doesn’t matter where. These guys are as good as anybody else on tour,” Daly said. “I’ve always said it: The guys that play on this tour and the guys that play on our tour, we’re one putt away from keeping our card, every round. I think most of the guys could agree – that’s four shots a week.”

Daly has played 11 PGA Tour events this year, although he has not had his full PGA Tour card since 2006 and has been playing mainly on sponsor exemptions. It’s been 15 years since he won his second major, the British Open at St. Andrews, and now he’s trying to salvage his career while making fewer troublesome headlines off the course.

In March, the Florida Times-Union reported that Daly’s PGA Tour disciplinary file, which the newspaper obtained during discovery in an unsuccessful defamation suit that Daly filed, included five suspensions.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever really considered myself as a bad boy. I’ve just made some stupid decisions like a lot of other players have out here. We all make mistakes. We all get fined for throwing a club or saying this and that,” he said. “I’ve toned it down a lot. ... I think I had more fun when I was doing it the other way, but I’ve put a lot of work into my game and into my life. I just think it’s going to pay off. I know the talent’s there.”

And Daly is still a draw – in Arkansas, certainly. This tournament is in its 13th year, and that will probably be all if the event doesn’t find a title sponsor.

So executive director Patricia Brown reached out to Daly, who agreed to forget about trying to qualify for the U.S. Open. Instead, he committed to play in Fort Smith, and Brown says he’ll be back in future years if the event is still around.

“John Daly’s going to make the difference in whether this tournament stays or goes,” Brown said. “As I told him when I went to see him, this is our swan-song year where he has the opportunity to throw the Hail Mary.”

Daly is doing his part to help promote the event, singing the praises of the Hardscrabble Country Club course Wednesday after playing in a pro-am. Daly’s schedule also included a performance at a concert in the area.

The LPGA Tour recently started an event in northwest Arkansas, but there’s no PGA Tour stop in the state.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a Nationwide event or a Tour event – something to have professional sports in the state of Arkansas,” Daly said. “It would be great to keep it.”

Despite all that, Daly says he doesn’t feel too much extra pressure this week. He says he’s comfortable playing at home, and he has played reasonably well in his PGA Tour events, making the cut eight times this year. He’s fought hip problems, and withdrew during two of those events, but last weekend he finished 64th at the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn., shooting between 70 and 73 in all four rounds.

“I think Colonial and Memphis were the first two tournaments in three years that I actually felt good for four straight days playing,” he said.

This week, the question isn’t just where Daly’s career is headed – but whether this tournament will still be on the schedule a year from now. There’s a sense that if Daly can’t save it, nobody can.

“We’ll see what happens with the galleries,” Brown said. “I hope it’s crazy.”

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