HONOLULU -- John Daly can't remember the last time he had a drink. He can't remember when his body felt this good. His face really went blank Thursday when asked the last time he shot a 64.
"I'm a little shocked myself," Daly said after a controlled round of 6-under 64 for the early lead in the first round of the Sony Open.
Looking as fit as he has in years, and pounding it has hard as ever, Daly made seven birdies and only one mistake at windy Waialae Country Club. He wound up with his lowest round in four years, and a one-stroke lead over Richie Coughlan of Ireland.
"My game feels good when I get on the course," Daly said. "I think all the hard word is starting to pay off."
Jim Furyk, Jesper Parnevik and Tom Lehman where among half of the field who played in the afternoon, as the Pacific winds started to really whip the course just down the shore from Waikiki.
Gary Nicklaus blocked out the bad memories of the ninth hole, where he had a 12 in the final round last year. He was eight strokes better Thursday - a birdie - and had a 66, putting in the group with Carlos Franco and Italian rookie Emanuele Canonica.
Ernie Els, Masters champion Vijay Singh and Tucson Open winner Garrett Willis were among those at 68.
Defending champion Paul Azinger had a 72.
The Sony Open turned out to be a rebirth for Azinger last year, his first victory since he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1993. Daly can't even imagine what it would mean to him if he could put together three more rounds like the one he had Thursday.
"It would probably be the biggest win in my life," said the former PGA and British Open champion, whose gone through three stints in alcohol rehabilitation.
Daly hasn't won since St. Andrews in 1995, and his career has been on rocky slide down ever since - rehab after trashing a hotel room in 1997 at The Players Championship; new life after Callaway Golf endorsed him later that year, only to resume drinking and toss away $3 million in incentives two years later.
Daly said he was on medication for those of that time to control his weight. "I was the rat for some doctor," he said.
At some point late last year, Daly said he finally listened to his body. No more medication. No more booze. No more chocolate, except when he flies.
"I still get nervous flying," he said.
His weight is about 210 pounds, down from 260 at this time a year ago. He has just signed a new endorsement deal with Hippo, although he won't starting using its clubs for a couple of more weeks.
The only thing unchanged is his quick pace down the fairways, puffing on a cigarette that he flicks to the ground only long enough for him to hit a shot.
But he was a model of control. Daly hit driver only five times, opting for 1- or 2-irons to keep in position. Still the longest hitter in the game, he needed only a 2-iron and a 4-iron to reach the 551-yard 18th hole, which set up a two-putt from 30 feet for birdie.
His only mistake was trying to take away too much of the dogleg on No. 8, his 1-iron clipping a tree and spitting the ball backward. He punched into the fairway and missed about an 18-foot par putt from just off the fringe.
The last time Daly had the lead after first round was the 1997 PGA Championship. He finished in a tie for 29th. The last time he had a 64 was the third round of the Bob Hope Classic in 1997, and he went on to finish seventh.
He has had only two top-10s since, none since early 1998.
Through all his turmoil, there is part of Daly that believes he still has more thrills to give a gallery that can never get enough.
"That's what keeps me motivated," he said. "I'm still a long way from where Tiger Woods, David Duval and Ernie Els are. But a long way in this game can be short. All it takes is 72 holes to get the confidence back that I had in the '90s."
He only got 18 holes in Thursday, but it was a good start.
Els, who missed five birdie putts inside 18 feet on the back nine Sunday of the Mercedes Championships, decided to change putters this week. He switched to a Never Compromise, a putter he used on occasion last year. ... Willis, the rookie who won in his PGA Tour debut last week at the Tucson Open, said he was giving $20,000 from his $540,000 winner's check to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
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