Resembling a cross between a peroxide Santa and a washed-up Grateful Dead roadie, John Daly soaked up the Oklahoma humidity as only he knew, chugging gallons of Diet Coke inside the comfort of his buggy. Once, the denizens of Southern Hills would have shunned him as a garish interloper. This club was established as a bastion of Tulsa oil wealth, with a strict dress code that did not extend to slovenly 56-year-olds with a weakness for trousers covered in psychedelic skulls. And yet Daly, 31 years on from winning the USPGA as the ninth alternate, remains a figure who compels you to leave your preconceptions at the door.
To study Daly in his natural habitat is to experience reactions akin to watching Keith Richards at a Rolling Stones concert. There is, first of all, faint astonishment that the man is still alive. Then comes admiration that he can perform his craft at the highest level with a cigarette clamped between his lips. Finally, you confront the greatest wonder of all: the fact that somehow, in defiance of every dictum about nutrition and alcohol and the forgoing of easy temptations, he remains capable of a standard that would embarrass men less than half his age.
John Daly nearly holes-out for eagle on the 1st! 😅 pic.twitter.com/00T7kYWD2L
— Sky Sports Golf (@SkySportsGolf) May 19, 2022
Daly would be at ease with the rock-star parallels. This is, after all, the figure who combined his appearance at Hoylake for the 2006 Open with a gig at the Cavern Club, backed by a Liverpool blues trio. That night, his lyrics mined the pathos of an unfathomably tumultuous life. One track, Lost Soul, featured a line about his fourth wife, Sherrie, being “in the pen” for laundering drug money. He followed this with a cover of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, tweaking the final verse to lament: “Haven’t made a cut in weeks, my career looks so bleak.”
For all the darkness that has engulfed Daly, a capacity for outrageous flourishes endures. This opening salvo on the edge of the Great Plains was one worthy of the canon: a round of 72 in which, confounding all expectations, he was two under after 13. He finished at two over, slightly bedraggled as the saturating heat took its toll, but still two clear of Tiger Woods. A more glaring antithesis to Woods you could scarcely hope to find. When the USPGA was last staged at this course in 2007, in August temperatures of over 40 degrees, Daly claimed to be sufficiently hydrated by the ice cubes in his energy drinks.
His regime of excess has become woven into golfing folklore. One reporter, having once walked 18 holes with Daly in South Carolina, swore blind that he saw him work through 21 Marlboros, 12 Diet Cokes and six packets of peanut M&Ms, all without consuming a drop of water. But it was on this major stage that his legend was cemented. Daly hardly registered a blip on the radar before the summer of 1991, forced to drive through the night to make his USPGA tee-time at Crooked Stick, outside Indianapolis, after Nick Price had pulled out to attend the birth of his first child.
Unkind caricatures abounded, with some muttering that he looked more like a used car salesman than a champion-in-waiting. Come Sunday night, having won by three, he was depicted less as a redneck than as the gloriously unaffected, grip-it-and-rip-it symbol of the game’s future. It is to this side of his nature that he has always clung, even when his 1995 Open triumph at St Andrews brought some improbable establishment kudos. Eschewing any starchy dinners, Daly much prefers to give his public what they want, staging exhibitions in which he smashes drives off the tops of cans of Budweiser.
The Daly dichotomy is rendered most starkly at Augusta. While he was decorated enough to earn his place at 12 Masters, he railed against the green jackets’ rulebook to such an extent that he has since set up camp in the Hooters car park on Washington Road, obliging for pictures with waitresses while selling his “Wild Thing” merchandise from the back of a truck. The image could easily be a sad metaphor for a player who, by his own admission, gambled away over £15 million in between his various treatments for alcoholism. It is less distressing, though, when you understand just how little Daly cares for outside perceptions of who and what he is.
Yes, he might have invited a few grumbles among the Southern Hills traditionalists by using a buggy, which he insists is for medical reasons. But the moment he arrowed his approach to six feet at the first, the ball hitting the flagstick on the first bounce, you realised the old sorcery was intact. His peers knew it, too. Daly is fond of recounting a story where, on seeing Woods head to the gym, he asked him to come out for a drink instead. Woods, while declining the offer, reputedly replied: “If I had your talent, JD, I would be doing exactly what you’re doing.” For one day, Daly tapped into that prodigious well of talent once more. And even as he negotiated the more taxing fairways on four wheels rather than two legs, he held the Tulsa galleries wholly under his spell.