One of the more improbable sports stories, at least in the last half of the 20th century, if not longer, concerns a professional golfer who was existing on the fringe of the game (accidental pun) when a series of coincidences and good fortune rescued him from a somewhat rough existence (deliberate bad pun).
The year was 1991. Our subject was a talented player who seemed to have an abundance of natural ability combined with a distinct lack of motivation, and even though he was only 25, he was already living with the threat of a substance abuse demon that defied any attempts to break free, so much so in fact, that eventually he stopped trying altogether.
John Patrick Daly was a PGA rookie in 1991. He had declared his intention to turn professional in 1987, when he left the University of Arkansas and its golf team before completing his education. He would immediately enjoy some measure of success when he won the 1987 Missouri Open. Several years of futility followed until he won the Ben Hogan Utah Classic and two professional events in South Africa in 1990.
The Hogan event was on what would now be considered the junior tour, the place where aspiring golfers hone their skills in the hope of getting to play on the main PGA Tour. The year Daly won was the first year of the event, which is now a part of the Web.com Tour. Other winners to go on to enjoy some degree of success on the PGA Tour have been Zach Johnson in 2003 and Chris Perry in 1994.
When John Daly won in 1990, neither he or anyone else had any inkling of what was to transpire just a bit over a year later when the last of the four Majors rolled around in August of 1991.
The PGA Championship is rather unique when it comes to selecting competitors. Daly was not eligible for the tournament via any of the first eleven selection criteria. He was also well down the list for the final spot in the 156 player event for the final pathway into the event, which consists of players whose earnings are below 70th place in the official PGA money standings.
Even that route was improbable, since there were eight players ahead of him on the list. Only when all eight either turned down the opportunity or got into the field after an invited player withdrew was Daly invited to play in that year’s edition, which was held in Carmel, Indiana, a suburb just north of Indianapolis.
Daly did not get into the field until Nick Price withdrew to be present for the birth of his son, who incidentally, came along just as Price would have been getting underway in the second round, so Daly’s good fortune had something to do with an event, unrelated to golf, that happened sometime around November of 1990.
What transpired next was somewhat akin to Old Rowley winning the 1940 Melbourne Cup at 100-1, except with a field of 156 players, Dally’s chances were no better than 156-1, technically much worse than that, since there were 13 previous PGA Championship winners in the field, including Jack Nicklaus and the 1990 winner, Australia’s own Wayne Grady.
When Daly showed up at the Crooked Stick course after being notified that he was in, after driving from his home in Memphis, Tennesse, a little over 1,200 kilometres (about seven hours for the typical driver, closer to four for the average American), he had never seen the course before, let alone played it. One of the other alternates had turned down a spot in the field rather than compete without at least one practice round.
Daly had no such reservations, but he also had no caddy, either. Nick Price’s departure, however, had left his regular caddy, Squeaky Medlin, without a golfer, so the two formed a partnership, Medlin needing a paycheck and Daly needing a Seeing Eye dog to guide him around the unfamiliar course, which serendipitously, was quite familiar to Medlin, being only about three hours distant from his Columbus, Ohio home.
John Daly was paired with Billy Andrade and Bob Lohr for the first round. He responded by carding an opening 69, just two shots off the lead. He backed that with a second round 67 and shot straight to the top of the leaderboard.
Daly was attracting a lot of attention, mainly for his length, which permitted him to often enjoy the distinct advantage of hitting approach shots with up to three clubs less than his playing partners. Famous golf course architect Pete Dye would later remark that Daly was so long that he could carry any of the trouble off the tee when not even Greg Norman was able to clear any of it.
America’s love of the underdog had gained an unlikely hero in Daly by the time the third round got underway. Down from groups of three to pairs of two, Daly was to play alongside veteran player Bruce Lietzke, who though very accurate, was routinely out-driven by Daly by 50 yards or more (46 m). Lietzke would later remark that the spectators easily identified to Daly’s go-for-broke approach to the game and related to his affable personality that included waving to the crowd and smoking cigarettes as he was walking down the fairways. Said Lietzke, “He (Daly) was the Everyman’s hero.”
Daly further cemented that opinion by shooting another 69 in the third round, and then deciding to take in a NFL exhibition game in Indianapolis on Saturday night betwixt the Colts and the Seattle Seahawks.
He took a three shot lead over Kenny Knox and Craig Stadler into the fourth and final round on Sunday.
Knox was paired with Daly and the damage to his ego at being routinely out-distanced by Daly despite Daly often hitting less club would eventually lead to Knox hurting his back in the pursuit of more distance.
Daly birdied four holes before a three-putt double-bogey on the 17th. He managed to get home safely on the 18th to preserve a three-shot victory over Lietzke, with Jim Gallagher Jr. five shots behind and Kenny Knox six.
Daly won $230,000 for that feat and immediately announced that he was donating $30,000 to the children of a spectator who had been struck and killed by lightning on the first day of the tournament. (For a perspective on the growth of prize money in professional golf, Daly took home $66,000 for a 10th place tie in the 2015 Puerto Rico Open)
That generosity did not prevent the critics from gathering in force the following week when Daly traveled to Denver, Colorado, to play in Jack Vickers’ International. Local publicists persuaded Daly to demonstrate the difference playing at over 5,000 feet above sea level (1524 m) has on a golf ball’s distance. Daly was shown hitting drives down the concrete runway of the airport, and the wolves began to howl. “Lack of respect for the game,” “He should be concentrating on his game,” and all manner of reprimands for what was basically a harmless stunt.
That is just the sort of attention John Daly would attract, despite winning the British Open in 1995 and other tournaments, displaying a deft touch and creativity around the greens, and high proficiency in putting.
His career and personal life would at times threaten to destroy him. Failed marriages, a serious drinking problem that started as early as nine years of age, and an addiction to gambling, which according to Daly cost him over $50 million, were to plague him and prevent him from realizing his true potential as a golfer.
Daly himself seems less concerned by the details of his life than are his detractors. His attitude would probably best be described as a philosophical one.
Now aged 48, he supports himself and his three children by playing the fringe tours and events, along with the occasional sponsor’s exemption on the main tour. It would not be surprising to see Daly crop up again in a couple of years’ time on the Senior PGA Tour, where his success is not certain, but the one thing that is certain is that the subject of John Daly will never induce boredom.