n their famous Oscar-winning film, the Coen brothers informed us that Texas is ‘No Country for Old Men’. Fortunately for the Champions Tour, John Daly never has liked being told what to do.
The Wild Thing turns 50 on 28 April and the very next week he competes in his first seniors event, the Insperity Invitational in Houston. Two weeks after that he will tee it up at the Regions Tradition, the week after that the Principal Charity Classic and another fortnight after that the American Family Insurance Championship.
It is cruel to comment that it sounds like a yesteryear crooner’s tour of nursing homes, but be sure there will be plenty of nostalgia hanging in the air at the venues. No matter how many people he upset or offended in his turbulent career – actually, probably because of how many people he upset and offended in his turbulent career – Daly remains a big draw. And the authorities know it.
Stewart Moore is the director of communications and strategy for the PGA Tour’s veteran circuit and the inquiries into Daly’s passing of the all-important milestone must have told him what he already realised. ‘From a pure fan standpoint, John is been one of the most popular four or five players in our game,’ Moore says. ‘He reaches a spectrum of fans and TV viewers that even some of the game’s greatest players have never reached.’
The Champions Tour needs Daly as much as Daly needs the Champions Tour. While the likes of Bernhard Langer, Colin Montgomerie, Fred Couples and the evergreen Tom Watson provide genuine star appeal there is something about Daly which transcends mere hero-gazing. You are never sure what you are going to get with him and that is his great allure.
Wherever he plays, fans still line the fairways, gawping on like Victorians at their freak shows. It is an intoxicating mix of sympathy, empathy, anticipation and dread that retains their attention. Daly might have cleaned up, shaped up and toned up in recent years, but deep down they all know the propensity is there to blow up. Daly is ever the marketing man’s dream, a no-lose showcase of pride or fall.
The lurid costumes only add to the colour, although in truth he does not need it. The Joseph on LSD Technicolor Dreamslacks may make him stand out even more but the day Daly needs bright clothing to make him interesting is the day Daly has lost his appeal.
Many experts believe he should have become an afterthought a long time ago. He has played infrequently over the past few years, making just 10 appearances on the PGA Tour in 2015 and missing the cut in eight of them. There was a tie for 10th at the Puerto Rico Open in August and on the European Tour he also made the weekend at the Turkish Airlines Open and the BMW Masters in China. Yet this skeletal body of work hardly puts him in the pack never mind anywhere near the elite. When it was announced that Daly would make his seniors bow at the Insperity he was way down in 933rd in the World Ranking. So why the enduring fame?
Of course, for this double Major winner it has so much to do with bad headlines. Last August at The PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Daly threw his club into Lake Michigan after taking a 10 on a par three. It was the 17th time he had racked up a double-digit score in one hole in his career and nobody was in any way shocked. His wild nature with club in hand only reflected his wild nature without a club in his hand. The Daly yarns are legion.
There was the time after he finished second to Tiger Woods in the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship in San Francisco and collected $750 000. Daly jumped straight into the car, took the eight-hour drive to Las Vegas and, riddled by a betting addiction which he reckons to have cost him $60-million overall, he lost £900 000 in that night’s sitting alone, half of which was supposed to have disappeared down a slot machine in 30 minutes.
Or what about the time he was involved in a punch-up with the 62-year-old father of a fellow player, Jeff Roth, in full view of the paying public at the World Series of Golf in Akron? Daly was fined more than £13 000 and suspended for the rest of the season. This was to be his biggest ban until 2008 when he was found unconscious outside a bar in North Carolina and thrown into jail to sober up. The fine – £7 000 – seemed pretty reasonable, but the Tour’s six-month suspension was regarded as harsh.
But then, they probably were at a loss as to what to do next. In 2009, the Tour’s naughty-boy file ran to 456 pages and its most startling revelation was that the Tour officials had ordered him to go to counselling or enter alcohol rehab on seven occasions. In his first 17 years on Tour, Daly was handed five bans, put on probation six times, fined nearly $100 000, and cited 11 times for ‘conduct unbecoming a professional’ and 21 times for ‘failing to give best efforts’. The most costly fine was $30 000. It came in 1993 when Daly hit balls over the heads of cowering fans sitting in a grandstand to watch an exhibition clinic.
That was only two years after the big-hitter had become a worldwide sensation and golf’s veritable Rocky story is what his many supporters understandably still remember most.
In fact, it is amazing Hollywood have not turned it into a movie. Daly was not only unknown going into the 1991 PGA Championship, he was not even playing. But then Nick Price withdrew to be at the birth of his first child and so a chain of events began which led to the unfolding of an archetypal American dream.
Eight players on the alternates list could not get to Crooked Stick, Indianapolis, to replace Price, but the ninth reserve got in his car, drove through the night and arrived there on the Thursday. Daly had never seen the course, but Price’s caddie Jeff ‘Squeaky’ Medlin was still on site and having done all the reconnaissance, agreed to work that week for him.
With his long blond hair and ‘grip it and rip it’ mentality, Daly became an instant crowd favourite and with their backing went on to bely odds of 1 000-1 to win the Major. A superstar was born and four years later, he won the 1995 Open Championship at St Andrews to prove it was not a fluke. But by then, Daly had become something of a pariah, ignored for the Ryder Cup but loved by the rednecks. It has been this way ever since, more or less, although now there is at least the sniff of a retributive narrative.
Life has calmed down sufficiently to believe that, if his oft overlooked catalogue of injuries allow, he can give it a real go in the over-fifties. In December he was engaged to Anna Cladakis and the future fifth Mrs Daly is undoubtedly a stabilising force. Since being with this former Hooters waitress he has lost four stone and kept the hell-raising to a minimum. He has actually self-taught one of his children – Little John – and pulled himself from the brink of bankruptcy. Daly has played only one tournament so far this campaign – a tie for 120th at the Qatar Masters in January – but is obviously relishing his fresh start. If only for its guaranteed playing opportunities.
‘It’s been seven years since I had a good schedule,’ Daly says. ‘My golf game hasn’t been that great, but I have been working really hard lately and I’m excited. It is more laid-back on the Champions Tour, that’s what everybody says, and I’m looking forward to it, and really most of the time, with them not having a cut, you can get aggressive.’
Yes, to the delight of the fans, TV execs and sponsors, Daly is determined to keep being Daly. Hit or bust, death or glory. ‘I would rather finish fifth or sixth and avoid being conservative for second place,’ Daly says. ‘I was always a guy who would try to win, and I would give up two or three extra spots to do that. Hopefully, I don’t embarrass myself out there. But I don’t really have any expectations and nor should any else. I’m one of those guys who you don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. I’m either going to piss you off or make you happy. That’s just me.’
DALY ON …
‘I’ve had some memorable moments in South Africa. This is where I got my start. I played really good on the Sunshine Tour for 1987 through to 1990 and it got my career going. I played really well over here and it got my confidence going, so that when I went back home it actually helped me get my Tour card’
‘It’s absolutely breathtaking. Now I know why it’s theNo 1 course in South Africa. It’s not easy, but it’s beautiful. It’s well manicured. It’s a ball striker’s golf course – you’ve got to hit the fairways. And the greens are tricky. It the kind of course where you’d almost prefer a 20-footer to a 10-footer on these greens’
‘We were staying in a house overlooking the Kruger Park and we saw elephants, a beautiful eagle and waterbuck. And I woke up to a cobra. For us being from America you see that kind of stuff in the movies and seeing it live is just incredible.’