Editor’s note: This story ran in the April 25 issue of Golfweek.
Texas did not make the rota when Pope Francis visited the United States last autumn, but judging the manner by which Houston has been abuzz, you’d think citizens are readying for the next-closest thing. Yes, Long John Daly, golf’s blue-collar, mythical Paul Bunyan, is turning 50 on April 28, and ready for his PGA Tour Champions debut.
Daly’s image adorns highway billboards and is featured in TV ads for the Insperity Invitational on May 6-8 at The Woodlands, former home to the Shell Houston Open. (“I won’t be hard to find,” the radiantly clad Daly proclaims.) There are John Daly bobbleheads, meet and greets, and even a Loudmouth Day when fans will don colorful, wild-looking duds that Pablo Picasso might have designed in the dark.
Daly’s Day 1 choice? The Atom Smasher. Fitting.
Houston is an oil town, and with prices having tumbled to $30 per barrel earlier this year, there was significant attrition anticipated in the tournament’s supporting sponsor ranks. Have no fear, Long John is here.
“We probably lost 30 or so (sponsors),” said Bryan Naugle, the Insperity Invitational’s executive director, “but we picked up about that many because of John. He has created interest. He’s going to be a star on our tour. We need that.”
Instead of selling individual tickets, Insperity has daily “gate sponsors,” and fans get in for free. About 40,000 turned out to watch a Greats of Golf exhibition featuring Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino. The typical Insperity crowd on Friday? About 15,000. Naugle expects it to more than double.
“He’ll be a good buzz for us,” Fred Funk said. “We need somebody out there who brings a little fire to the game.”
Can we back up here? John Daly is turning 50. Fifty! Wow. It’s a simple sentence that had no guarantees as Daly battled demons, self-doubts, suicidal thoughts and various addictions that included alcohol and gambling.
John Daly, 50? Hallmark doesn’t make a card for that. There was a time when even he did not think it would happen.
“Yeah, Fuzzy (Zoeller) and I do have a slight bet,” Daly, smiling, said recently in a lengthy interview at the Puerto Rico Open. According to Daly, Zoeller wagered $150,000 that Daly never would get to see his 50th birthday cake. “Knock on wood, I hope I make it. He said, ‘Dicky – he calls me Dicky – you’ll never make it to 50.’ ”
Well, what do you know? Pay up, Fuz.
For so long, John Daly has been golf’s resident enigma. He is immensely talented, yet too often wasted his gift. He admits as much. It was if he walked straight out of the woods in 1991 and, as ninth alternate at age 25, won the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Indiana. Four years later, and then sober, he showed he was no one-hit wonder, winning the British Open at St. Andrews. As a champion at the Home of Golf he joined this roster of greats: James Braid. Bobby Jones. Sam Snead. Bobby Locke. Jack Nicklaus. Seve Ballesteros. Nick Faldo. Since, Tiger Woods won twice there.
John Daly on that list? To some, it’s an onion ring at the bottom of a sack of french fries. (Bet none of the others gorged chocolate ice cream from the famed jug.) To Daly, 21 years later, St. Andrews remains critically meaningful.
“Not until I won the 1995 British Open did I feel that maybe I do belong out here,” Daly said. “Some of the stupid crap I’ve done in my life, guys have lost a lot of respect for me. I understand that. That’s hard to build back. But what can you do? I’ve apologized. We all make mistakes, and most of the guys have forgiven me.”
Ah, the stupid stuff. Daly, golf’s Wild Thing, became a tabloid star. Run-ins with the law, golf course walk-offs, the high scores, the four failed marriages. (He is engaged to be married a fifth time.) According to court filings obtained by the Florida Times-Union in 2010 from a defamation lawsuit that Daly filed against the Jacksonville newspaper (he lost), Daly was suspended five times, ordered by the PGA Tour to go to rehab seven times and fined 21 times for “not giving best efforts.”
Is there trepidation that he might rock the PGA Tour’s tranquil over-50 sunset cruise?
“None whatsoever,” said Greg McLaughlin, PGA Tour Champions president. “There’s nothing but positive support, because players think he’s going to help their tour. I find that very enlightening. They really think he’s going to add value. We’re excited, and so is John.”
For the first time since 2007, Daly, with limited past-champions status and playing mostly on sponsor exemptions, will be able to build a steady schedule. He’ll play Insperity, take a week off for his 21st annual Boys & Girls Clubs tournament in Arkansas, and then head to Birmingham, Ala., for the Regions Tradition, starting a likely run of 12 consecutive Champions starts. He last won a tournament in 2004.
“I still hit if far enough,” he said. “I feel I still hit it straight enough. For me, it’s just a matter of getting that putter going. My wedge game is still strong. And I wouldn’t be playing if I couldn’t chip. I know in my heart that I can chip. I can’t wait. The last couple of years have been tough. It’ll kind of be like the ’90s again.”
Without the Billy Ray Cyrus mullet, mind you
Daly’s life remains forever frenzied (last week, another court date awaited with an ex-wife), but there also is a certain peace to it. His daughters, Shynah and Sierra, are grown and living at his home in Dardenelle, Ark., and 12-year-old John II (or LJ, for Little John) is doing great, attending school and playing golf nearly every day in Orlando, Fla. He walked along with his dad during the Puerto Rico Open.
“I’m a damn good father,” Daly said. “So I’ve done something right.”
When he’s not out on his bus, Daly and fiancee Anna Cladakis, who caddies for him, live mostly in Clearwater, Fla., where Daly plays and practices. He said he has been working hard. He wishes he had the mindset he has now when he was at his physical peak.
Daly laughs and says maybe, with his linebacker’s mentality, he should have stuck with football. For all the headlines, good and bad, there are no regrets. He’s had a blast. He’d love to recover the estimated $55 million that he says he lost gambling, but guaranteed no-cut paydays should allow him to rebuild a modest nest egg.
Can you say a man with two major titles has underachieved? Probably not. Daly won five PGA Tour events in all, and banked more than $10 million in official earnings, plus exponentially more in endorsements before much of it faded.
“If I’d have had my head on (straight) and worked at it harder in the ’90s, I’d have done a lot better,” he said. “But being a country boy from Arkansas, man, all that money was coming in. I was able to buy whatever the hell I wanted, and could do this, do that . . .”
His life problems, and issues, all so public, have pulled his loyal fans even closer to him. He’s a pro golfer, but really no different than your neighbor the plumber who heads off to work in his van each morning.
“He’s just like everybody else,” said Michael Bradley, a four-time PGA Tour winner who will join the Champions in July. “We’ve all got issues. We’ve all got problems. John’s the everyman. People see these guys playing for millions of dollars every week and figure life must be perfect. Life isn’t perfect for all of us. Life is tough.”
Daly still drinks a few Miller Lites these days, and there are precious seconds between Marlboros. When he went to the Betty Ford Clinic in 1997, he was assigned an exercise in which he wrote down pros and cons of being John Daly.
“I’ve taken responsibility, but you learn it’s not always your fault,” he said. “In marriages, it takes two. I was always taking the burden for everything. You sit down and write a list of pros and cons about yourself, and you learn there’s a hell of a lot more pros than there are cons.”
Wasserman’s Bud Martin, Daly’s manager since 1990, has traversed every peak and every valley, but he prefers to look at Daly’s career and think of the simpler times. John Patrick Daly, at his core, is not a very complicated man.
“I like the moments that have nothing to do with the golf,” Martin said. “The drive-through at McDonalds after he wins the PGA Championship. The flight home the next day after he wins the British Open. Those are the times that he just touched immortality, but he’s still the same John. The next morning, he wants his large Diet Coke and an Egg McMuffin.
“While everything could be different, nothing changes. And I think that has been the consistent ‘inconsistency’ of John’s personality. He’s just him. He’s happy. He’s comfortable in his own skin, and quite honestly, isn’t that the ultimate goal for all of us, to be comfortable with who we are? That’s John.”
This fall, ESPN Films will release “Hit it Hard,” an hourlong documentary on Daly’s hardscrabble life, from the fields in Arkansas to being the Open’s “champion golfer of the year.” He is the first golfer whom ESPN has documented; that speaks volumes. It shows the good and the bad. That’s Daly.
“You almost have to laugh about some of the stuff, because if I live and dwell on it, I’m going to be a miserable guy,” Daly said. “I can’t dwell on everything that has been bad. I still believe 65 or 70 percent of it has been good.
“I think that’s why God created everybody different. If we were all the same, we’d all be bored.”
For two-plus decades, Daly has been many things. Never boring.