ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – John Daly is back in the U.K., but save your pounds before plunking any down on the juicy tabloids. Golf’s Wild Thing has a new, self-anointed nickname: Just call him, ahem, Mild Thing.
As a matter of habit, Daly will dominate headlines again on Friday morning across Scotland, but this time it’s for his play on the course, not off it. Confidently wielding the driver as if someone had turned back the clock 15 years and brought back his Old Course mullet, Daly simply overpowered the St. Andrews links, firing 6-under 66 on a docile morning when the auld lady was about as volatile and threatening as mild-mannered June Cleaver. How inviting was she? Daly shot 6 under and still trailed Rory McIlroy by three.
That’s OK. Like so many others, Daly simply feels different here, a force field of peacefulness surrounding him, protecting him, once he steps past that cold stone clubhouse and gets to the first tee. He picked up his second career major here in 1995, and it was hard not to get too far ahead of himself seeing his name atop the manual boards and hearing the fans roar their approval across the storied links on Thursday, the momentum building as he got deeper into his round.
“It’s one of those places,” said Daly, “that you either just absolutely love or you absolutely hate.”
Count Long John among the former. He fell into deep enchantment with the Old Course when he first visited St. Andrews for the Dunhill Links in 1994, taking part in a winning effort with U.S. teammates Payne Stewart and Fred Couples. A year later, he was back for the Open Championship and hoisted the champion’s Claret Jug, holding off Italian Costantino Rocca in a windswept playoff.
He’s 44 now, and going anywhere that offers a tranquil respite from his often tumultuous and sometimes soap-opera life is a welcome trip for Daly. He has battled alcoholism, depression, exhaustion, a six-month PGA Tour suspension in 2009, a foursome of divorces, sponsorship and financial woes, weight problems, a rib injury and lost status on the PGA Tour. His latest legal tango is with the IRS over back taxes owed – according to recent reports, he owes more than $1 million – but Daly said he’s busily trying to work it all out. It doesn’t help that endorsement checks that once arrived with six zeroes attached no longer find his mailbox.
Through it all, with all the ripples in his ocean, there aren’t many times Daly can show up to a tournament with a clear head and play. The Open Championship, especially one at St. Andrews, presents one of those rare opportunities.
“This place just agrees with him,” said Bud Martin, president of SFX World, which represents Daly. “It’s pleasing to his eye, and he sees lines that he likes. You’ve heard the phrase ‘horses for courses’? That’s John at this place. He just seems really confident this week.”
Only once on Tour this season has Daly finished higher than 55th (a tie for 24th in Puerto Rico), and he has slipped to No. 455 in the world. A few weeks ago, Daly teed it up in a Nationwide event at home in Arkansas.
At one point earlier this season, in San Diego, he was so frustrated by his lack of results he talked about walking away from the game altogether. Two weeks later, he was playing again.
“There’s a lot of guys who say it (talk about retiring),” Daly said. “I was just the idiot that said it on TV.”
So there was little reason to expect a whole lot from Long John when he made his way to the tee Thursday morning. In a dozen Open appearances since winning at the Old Course in ’95, Daly has missed the cut eight times, and slow starts have been a problem. Before Thursday, only once in that stretch (2009) has he managed to break 70 in the opening round.
Left field? This round seemed to emerge from somewhere off the Firth of Tay.
“I haven’t been in this position in a long, long time,” said Daly, who made seven birdies and hit the hole with four other birdie putts. “You know, I feel the game is coming around, and when I’m hitting my driver the way I am right now, it brings confidence. A lot of guys, when they’re putting well, it brings them confidence . . . but for me, I’ve never been a great, great putter.”
Having lowered his weight to 195 pounds after lap-band surgery, he says he has but two old vices these days – Diet Cokes and cigarettes. (Some people might argue a third exists – his wild taste in fashion; Daly joked his pants are so loud and colorful it allows him to dress in the dark). His fourth divorce recently finalized (“That took a lot out of me,” he confided after his round), Daly has settled down with a steady girlfriend (Anna Cladakis) and said he is very much at peace with his life.
Of course, we’ve heard this before from Daly, and then bad headlines seem to follow him. At 44, has John Daly really, truly grown up? He says with his fishbowl existence, reality and perception are not always two peas in the same pod.
“I’m not as wild as the people I’ve seen in my time (on Tour),” he said. “It’s a cool name (Wild Thing) – I don’t mind it – but there are certain things I don’t want to do anymore.”
Winning majors is not among those things he wants to give up. Thursday at the Old Course, he was miles away from handling the pressure of an Open Championship Sunday, but for Daly, it was a good step forward. A year ago, we had the improbable storyline of Tom Watson contending at Turnberry. Could you imagine the magnitude of John Daly being there with the jug on Sunday at the Old Course, joining the likes of Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington with three majors? Somebody might want to nudge the ghost of Old Tom Morris with that notion.
“I’ve done it before,” Daly said. “It would sure be great to do it again.”