MAMARONECK, N.Y. (AP) - John Daly's breakthrough came at the PGA Championship six years ago. Today may have been the start of something even bigger.
Daly, in alcohol rehabilitation twice since his stunning win at Crooked Stick in 1991, birdied the last three holes today at Winged Foot to shoot a 4-under-par 66 and take the early lead at the PGA Championship.
"It would be a shock" to win, Daly said. "It would be something very special to me."
Daly led by two strokes over British Open champion Justin Leonard, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Kite and a pair of former PGA champions - Paul Azinger and Bob Tway.
Tiger Woods shot a 70, while U.S. Open champion Ernie Els was at 71.
"That was probably the worst score I could have shot today," said Woods, who took a double bogey on the par-5 12th.
Among the late starters, Mark O'Meara was at 4-under through 11 holes.
It was Daly's sixth tournament this year since The Players Championship in March, where he smashed up a hotel room after a night of drinking. He later announced he was entering a Betty Ford clinic.
And it was his first major championship since the U.S. Open, where he walked off the course after holes in the second round without even telling his playing partners. He cited fatigue.
There was no quit in Daly today. He tied the competitive course record of 66, first set by his good friend Fuzzy Zoeller in the 1984 U.S. Open.
"He looked like he cared," Azinger said. "You could see it in his eyes."
Hitting it straight and putting it pure, Daly holed an 18-foot birdie on the par-3 10th and followed that with a 10-footer for birdie at No. 11.
He completed his stirring finish by hitting his approach to within 3 feet at the 18th hole for a 66.
Daly was the ninth alternate at the PGA in 1991, getting into the tournament only when Nick Price withdrew. He overwhelmed Crooked Stick with one mammoth drive after another, winning by three strokes.
But it has been a difficult road ever since for Daly, who became known as much for his turbulent behavior as his prodigious drives.
He first entered alcohol rehab in 1992, but returned to drinking. He was suspended a year later after walking off the course in Hawaii, and he agreed to sit out the rest of the year in September 1994 after getting into a scuffle with a 62-year-old man after shooting an 81 in the World Series of Golf.
Daly overcame his troubles by winning the British Open in 1995, but was seen drinking a year later.
He has lost about 30 pounds since leaving the Betty Ford clinic in the spring, and has rededicated himself to winning.
"Golf and the disease are pretty similar," Daly said. "Golf is an addiction, and so is alcohol. I'm just taking it one day at a time, and one shot at time."
Daly wasn't the only great comeback story in the works.
Azinger, who won the 1993 PGA Championship, found out four months later he had lymphoma. He returned a year later, but hasn't won a tournament since.
"The thought of winning the golf tournament would be more of a dream than a reality," Azinger said. "If I were lucky enough to be in contention come Sunday, I could draw on a little experience to pull it off."
But neither Daly nor Azinger won their first majors at a course like Winged Foot, which is more suited to a U.S. Open because of the high demands on driving long and straight, and such sharp contours on the greens that the putting surface is actually smaller than it looks.
"I would say that 80 percent of the time if you're in the rough, you're going to pitch back out," Azinger said.
Daly was an exception. He hit his tee shot into the rough on the par-4 14th, then his a 7-iron from 160 yards to about 15 feet for birdie.
"Next to the roar on 18, it was the loudest roar of the day," Azinger said.
Daly hit driver only four times today, but his length was still a factor. He used his 3-wood off the tee on the three closing holes - all of them about 300 yards, leaving him a short iron into the green that left him short birdie putts.
His 9-iron into the 18th green - Hale Irwin clinched his U.S. Open victory at Winged Foot in 1974 with a 2-iron at 18 - stopped a foot from the hole.
"I've been working real hard on my game," he said. "The key to this round was I made a lot of putts and hit a lot of fairways."
That's not a bad recipe for Winged Foot.
The greens were relatively soft after days of scattered showers, but trouble was lurking anywhere, ready to penalize good rounds at any minute.
Just ask Woods. He was cruising along at 3-under through 11 holes until he tried to reach the 540-yard 12th hole in two. He lost the ball to right, took three shots to get to the green and two-putted for a double bogey.
Els was matching birdies with Woods in the early going until his approach from the rough on the eighth hole moved about 2 yards. He took a double bogey, then flubbed a pitch from the greenside rough on No. 14 into a steep bunker, and had to hole a 6-footer to save bogey.
Leonard may not be the most spectacular player in that group of twentysomething stars, but he had the right game for Winged Foot - steady, smart, patient.
Leonard bogeyed the first hole but had two par-saving putts and made the turn at 1-under with an 18-foot birdie chip from the fringe.
Kite birdied four straight holes on the front nine and was at 4-under until he finally ran into trouble. He saved par from the fairway rough at No. 11, but two-putted from 30 feet to take a bogey, the missed another par putt on the 14th.
Payne Stewart, still holding out hope to be a captain's pick for the Ryder Cup, shot a 70. Tom Watson and Fred Couples were in a group at 71.
Nick Faldo once again struggled with his putter and shot 75.
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