KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — For 21 years we’ve been rubber-necking in John Daly’s life – often times to gawk at the crashes and in precious other moments to marvel at the beauty.
Thursday was one of those pretty days – his “Atta Babe” patterned hotel carpet orange pants notwithstanding.
The most mesmerizing figure in golf this side of Phil Mickelson crafted a four-birdie, one-eagle round of 67 on Thursday on the beautiful stretch golfing ground between the ocean and the marshes of the South Carolina Lowcountry. The galleries were lapping up seeing long John back on a PGA Championship leaderboard.
His gawkers on Thursday included Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino and musician Darius Rucker posing for pictures with Daly.
“It’s just like my golf game,” Daly explained of his blue-collar appeal in a white-collar sport. “It is up and down, but so is my life. And everybody’s life is up and down. It’s how we battle to get through it, and I think people relate to that.”
Daly has battled so many things since he burst onto the scene with a stunning victory at the 1991 PGA at Crooked Stick, you lose count of all the low points. He’s battled broken marriages, alcohol issues, financial crises, behavioral infractions and lulls in confidence that it seems pointless to catalog it all.
But his innate talent – which won two majors – never completely wanes. In fact, he’s undergoing a career resurgence in 2012 at age 46, a return to form that brought him from 666 in the world when he walked off a course in Australia late last season to 219th after a fifth-place finish last week at Reno-Tahoe.
Daly says he’s simply in a better place and that leads to better golf.
“Everything is just perfect outside the ropes in my life, so I can concentrate on golf,” he said. “I think more importantly, my mind is right to give me a chance. If I make a double, who cares? If I play good here, it doesn’t really matter to me. If I play bad, it doesn’t matter to me. But I want to play good.”
When Daly plays good, it’s still something special. He can still overpower holes like the par-5 11th that produced an eagle. He can still display that incongruous soft touch, like the up-and-down par save on the 18th to “keep the momentum going” into the clubhouse.
Even his major peers have a soft spot for Daly.
“I have always rooted for him,” said Tiger Woods, who recalled watching Daly hit a ball so hard with a 5-iron 23 years ago that it was no longer round when it hit the green. “I have always been a John Daly fan and a friend.”
Sometimes it’s harder to feel that way. Last November, Daly walked off the golf course at the Australian Open after hitting seven balls into the water on the 11th hole. Australasian tour officials were so mad at him that they banned him from their PGA championship two weeks later.
It wasn’t until later that news came out that Daly’s mother had died three days earlier and his heart was just too heavy to focus on golf. His emotions have often been his own worst enemy.
“That was a rough week,” said Daly, who returned across the world for his mother’s funeral. “That’s when people bashed me when they didn’t really know the whole story.”
But from that ebb came another rebirth. Daly finished fourth in Qatar in January and has been performing well on both the European and PGA tours whenever he can get a start.
“I’m adapting to going back and forth a little bit,” said Daly. “I love playing both tours. But my goal would be to be back on our tour, no doubt.”
Daly and PGA-winning peers like Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel are golfing nomads of sorts, cashing in on former glories in desperate hopes of procuring full-time cards again. Daly hasn’t owned a full-time tour card anywhere in the world since 2006, but he’s getting close at 149th on the PGA Tour money list.
“None of us are very, very far from being one of the top 50 guys,” Daly said. “It’s just golf. It could be chipping. It could be putting. It could be one bad tee ball. You never know. I think we thrive on that, and we’re all so competitive, we just want to get back out here. ... We want a schedule. We don’t want to wait to get in tournaments here and then hopefully get in tournaments in Europe. We know we’re going to get in some, but it’s tough. You sit by the phone a little bit, and you hope to get on a stretch, get on a run, get in six or eight weeks in a row because I don’t mind playing that much golf as long as I’m healthy.”
So Daly keeps on plugging, sporting his gaudy trousers and enough logos on his shirt – Blue Collar Golf, Mark Christopher Chevrolet, Luber Bros., Loud Mouth – to pass for a NASCAR driver.
And sometimes he shows up on a British Open or PGA venue that suits his eye and teases his still lurking potential.
“I’m just kind of loosey goosey out there, and it just feels good,” he said. “I think for me, to just free-wheel it is the only way I can get my confidence back instead of worrying about bad breaks and worrying about this and worrying about what somebody else is doing. I only need to worry about what I’m doing and go out and attack and play golf and enjoy it.”
For as long as it lasts on the Ocean Course, the rubber-neckers will enjoy it as well.