Some clever person put together a video of one of the most significant rounds in golf history and it turned up on my Facebook page.
Ordinarily, I can brush these things aside with aplomb, but even with the sound off, something about John Daly’s mullet drew me in to watch him win the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in the August of 1991.
Few golfers will need to be reminded that Long John got in as the ninth alternate, drove through the night from his home in Memphis, borrowed Nick Price’s caddy, Squeaky Medlin, and won his first Major title at 25. There’s one thing knowing all that stuff, but another altogether to see it unfold again, shot by edited shot, with everyone else edited out.
Bruce Springsteen described the snare-drum opening to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ as being ‘like somebody kicked open the door to your mind’. Well, watching Daly saunter his way to glory in Indiana was, with the benefit of 31 years’ distance, to witness the beginning of modern golf.
No one had ever swung the club like John Daly and in 1991 no one on Tour hit the ball anything like as far. That in itself was not significant; Nicklaus and Palmer hit the ball miles in comparison to their peers.
What marked Daly out was attitude; he knew length was his weapon and when it went wrong he didn’t care. He knew he had a great short game and the final round at Crooked Stick shows hole after hole of Daly getting in trouble, getting out of trouble and holing four-foot putts as if they were tap-ins.
The only time he paid for his hubris was at the par-three 17th where he made double-bogey. He hit a 4-iron into the greenside bunker, splashed out and then three-putted from 15 feet. That had the effect of reducing his lead to three shots over Bruce Lietzke, but it didn’t matter, he parred the last to win by the same three shots.
Given what happened to his life and career subsequently it’s easy to dismiss Daly as a squandered talent. But he won another Major four years later and, through the Nineties, he was guaranteed box-office gold. And among his viewership, wide-eyed over their bowls of cereal, were today’s superstars.
Fast forward to the last decade and think of how distance off the tee has become the new god. Bryson DeChambeau turned it into a science and Rory McIlroy turned it into a thing of beauty, but what they and the likes of Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson have in common is Daly’s serene attitude.
Grip it and rip it and know that if you happen to find the rough, you’re still coming in with a wedge rather than a 6-iron.
What this generation has done to the game is akin to what T20 cricket did to the 50-over game. It took out the boring middle overs and concentrated on the slogging. Today’s superstars have gotten rid of the mid-irons that Hogan mastered and go to war instead with three or four wedges in the bag.
John Daly showed them the way and he’s still doing it on the PGA Tour Champions, still with that ridiculous backswing, still hitting it past everyone else. One day, when he can’t do it any more, today’s stars should pay into his pension fund in perpetuity.
– This column first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.