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John Daly, the Devil's Golfer, Again in Hunt at PGA Championship

By: Jay Flemma


He drinks, smokes, gambles, is beyond overweight, has a devil-may-care attitude and yes, once again John Daly is lurking atop the PGA Championship leaderboard after the first round at Southern Hills Country Club. Daly, looking as frumpy as ever, fired a sparkling 3-under-par 67 over the 7,131 par-70 Perry Maxwell layout to trail only Englishman Graeme Storm, who leads after a scintillating 65. Daly struck early and often, going out in 32 and then shooting even-par the rest of the day. His round featured a single blemish, a bogey at the 507-yard 16th hole, the longest par-4 in major championship history.

After the round, the jocular Daly played the media as well as he played the golf course, holding court before a packed house of journalists and wisecracking the entire time to there inestimable delight. "I can't even remember the holes, it's been so long," he quipped impishly no less than 10 minutes after completing his round. "I only had three heat strokes out there, so I honestly can't remember much," he joked when asked to describe the specifics of his round.

The media were only too willing to bite at his lures during the long interview. When asked about his preparation regimen for the tournament, Daly instead regaled them with tales of his slots prowess at the nearby Cherokee Casino. "I did play their golf course yesterday. I went out in a cart. They gave me the golf course from 10:00 to 1:00. I got a lot of practicing in and it was probably the best practice I had." Daly remarked that after duck-hooking his first drive of the day, he realized he was taking the club too far inside and made an adjustment to restore his trademark cut.

Nevertheless, it was Daly's putting that was the cornerstone of his resurgence. "Today was about my putting, it was exceptional for me today." While Daly hit a mere six fairways out of 14, he completed his loop around Maxwell's fiendish greens with an eye-opening 30 putts. The rough, touted by so many players as penal enough to cause them to lose control of iron shots, did not affect Daly as he hit an astounding 14 greens in regulation.

Daly hit seven greens from out of the rough to lead the field in that statistic. In contrast, Tiger Woods, who shot a mundane 71, hit 10 fairways, but only 10 greens. Woods did not hit a single green in regulation after missing a fairway. In holes where the statistic was measured, Daly averaged a staggering 345 yards driving distance to lead the field. Woods, who also had 30 putts, averaged 310.

Arron Oberholser came closest to matching Daly's remarkable feat in conquering the rough. Oberholser hit four greens from the rough and 14 greens overall in firing a 2-under 68. Oberholser took a mere 29 putts. "68 is great," he remarked with some relief. "I had one hiccup [a double-bogey at 16] and it didn't upset me . . . I think it's part of the maturing process and realizing you're at a major championship and the golf course is very difficult and mistakes like that are going to happen. You have to accept it and move on."

Padraig Harrington equaled Oberholser's feat of hitting four fairways from out of the rough. "I had all short irons out of the rough and two that didn't hit the green were right on the edge so it was really more like six," he remarked candidly. He hit only six fairways and 10 greens, but took a mere 27 putts to finish at 1-under 69. When asked how he avoided the hangover that sometimes leads first-time major winners to falter subsequently, he said: "It's like when I first came out on Tour and won for the first time. When good things happen, I tend to put the blinkers on [Author's Note: I think he meant "blinders"] and I just keep going forward."

The other major champions did not fare as well. Masters winner Zach Johnson sweated his way to a 74 and U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera fired a forgettable 81 after carding a 10 on the par-3 6th hole. The Argentine is tied for 151st. Woody Austin joined Oberholser at 2-under and a large group at 1-under 69 included Camilo Villegas, Geoff Ogilvy and Lee Westwood. Sean O'Hair, Sergio Garcia and Retief Goosen led the logjam at level-par 70.

Despite the sweltering heat - temperatures pushed into the high 90s - Daly did exactly the opposite of what most players and spectators did to stay cool and hydrated. "I light up a cigarette and drink some caffeine and it actually works," he remarked to the astonishment of everyone.

Then again, nothing should surprise us about the mercurial Daly. He's a modern day Nicolo Paganini. Musicians revere Paganini (1782-1840) - who was known as the "Devil's Fiddler" - for not only his sublime, atmospheric playing and transcendent talent, but for his flawed character. Daly leads a similar life: a mixture of superhuman successes and personal excesses. Like Paganini, he was deeply gifted from a young age, but also battled severe personal demons.

While most golfers, as author Ian Fleming put it - "lead Spartan, careful lives, not smoking or drinking" and going about their business with the clinical precision of a surgeon, Daly is every bit the riverboat gambler, both literally and figuratively. While most golfers are married to the metal of their golf clubs, Daly is instead married to the metal of his slots coins. Like Paganini, who lost considerable amounts speculating on a Paris casino in 1838, Daly estimates he lost an unfathomable $50 million in his book "My Life in and out of the Rough." When asked how he fared gambling this week, he replied, "I did okay the first day I was [at the Cherokee Casino]. I didn't do too good yesterday afternoon."

Many pundits and fans condemn Daly's embracing of being a rakehell and his self-destructive tendencies. Just like Paganini would deliberately break strings, then stunningly play whole concertos on one violin string, Daly plays fast and loose as a golfer and in his life. Paganini could play fiendishly complicated pizzicatos, harmonics, and even perform opposite-handed, so too can Daly astonish us with his soft hands, getting the ball up and down from the deck of a sinking ship after driving from one county into the next.

Yet his failures are as well documented as his successes. Daly was known for hitting five balls in a row in the water at Pebble Beach, quitting several U.S. Opens in a huff without signing his card, and being too drunk to play golf after an epic bender. He seemingly changes wives as often as golf shirts. "His problems are self-made," wrote prominent sportscaster Steve Czaban. "They come from a stubborn denial and refusal to change or get better." But then again, such is the insidious, debilitating nature of addiction - whether gambling, smoking, sex, drugs and yes, golf. Such afflictions cry out for either sympathy or empathy, depending upon whom you ask.

Just as Paganini was the Devil's Fiddler, so too is Daly the Devil's Golfer; gifted, but flawed. His duality makes him a tragic hero. We fear to watch, but cannot turn away. The manic-depressive nature of his life's euphoric highs and soul-crushing lows mesmerizes us, even though it turns golf into a lowest common denominator soap opera at times. Perhaps the dichotomy is best summed up in one simple observation from his dear friend, Mark Bryan, guitar player for Hootie and the Blowfish. "Knowing John, he could win it, or not even make the cut, but I think he's due for at least a strong finish this week."

Daly is such a polarizing figure that he'll appeal to the sympathies of the everyman, while offending the Victorian spirit of hardcore fans. But the tragic duality is the true and sincere character of the man. He will be who he is and succeed or fail according to whatever ineluctable fate is in the cards. Angel or devil, Daly seems to look both in the eye equally and say, "Shuffle up and deal," and his life hinges on the turn of the next card.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.