Standing there in a greenside bunker with 100 feet of grass between him and the cup, John Daly was excruciatingly close to winning in America for the first time in nine years.
But he also was so far. This was extra holes in the Buick Invitational. Grinding away with him were two very accomplished golfers, Chris Riley and Luke Donald. Riley, one of the tours best putters, was already on the green putting for birdie only 6 feet away. Par at best appeared the most likely result for Daly.
But here came the ball, out of the bunker and slowly approaching a crest in the green. Over the ridge it trickled, then picked up speed and rolled, rolled, rolled, finally dying just 4 inches away. Rileys putt horseshoed out of the cup, and there it was ' John Daly had won again for the first time in the U.S. since 1994.
That win was the jumping-off point to the finest year of Dalys career. He won $2,359,507, good for 21st on the tour money list. He followed up his win in San Diego with a second-place finish in the Buick Open later in the year ' battling Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods all the way to the 72nd hole. And the 38-year-old, free at last of the personal demons which have plagued him for so many years, appeared to be at peace with himself.
I knew if I landed where I spotted - I spot bunker shots, especially if I can see the whole green - I guess it was probably 6, 7 feet short of the hill, and I hit it right where I wanted to, Daly said of the winning bunker shot. When I saw it get over the hill and it was kind of trickling, I knew it was going to be pretty good.
Standing on the green were his two opponents. I have a feeling what touch he has for a guy who hits the ball a long ways, said Riley. That's why he's won his majors. He has great hands. As soon as he hit it out of there, it was coming out pretty hard and I saw it check, and I thought, This has a shot.
Donald was thinking the same thing.
Most people, when they think of John Daly, they think of length, said the young Englishman. I've played with him a couple of times. He has the best touch around the greens as any player. He proved it right there, made a great 4.
It was, said Daly, his biggest win ever ' bigger than the PGA Championship in 91, bigger than the British Open in 95. All the long days and rowdy nights, marriages and divorces, all the peccadilloes of a grown man making a young mans mistakes, were atoned for with this victory.
I've won two majors, said Daly afterwards. Nothing can take that away, but I've never won a tournament that Tiger has been in the field. That feels good. And this field this week was one of the strongest fields we can have.
It's been a long time, he said. It's been forever since I've won one on U.S. soil, since I've won a tournament.
It means more to me because I got to a point there after 10 years of not winning anything, thinking you can win again. Every week I step on the first tee hoping to win, thinking I can win, but to finally do it again - it's very, very special.
Actually, the springboard to this year might have come in the off-season of last year.
I was playing really bad and I had a contract to play Korea, and everybody told me don't go, said John. I said I'm going to live up to the contract. I don't feel like I'm playing that bad. When I went over there and won, I got some confidence. Just me and my caddie went, no agents. We went and worked really hard. I knew we were hitting the ball OK. To win there, it just boosted the confidence.
Come back, and I always love playing Pebble and Spyglass so it ended up not big, big tournaments, but it didn't matter. Any time you win a professional tournament these days, you get confidence, and it carried over into this year a little bit.
Then he got together with his new equipment manufacturer and was able to design clubs and balls which were specifically made for him. And, he throttled back somewhat his go-for-it style of play, using the long irons and fairway woods more off the tee. Dalys driving average dropped from 314 yards last year to 306 this year, but his driving accuracy percentage increased from 48.7 to 53.
But as much as he is renowned for his prodigious driving game, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum that he really came through this year. He finished fifth on tour in putting average calculations, and the implications cant be misinterpreted.
Any time you win a tournament, you win with your short game, he said. Whether it's chipping or putting, you win tournaments with your short game. I won the British Open with my short game. I won the PGA with my short game. You can't win tournaments if you don't have the short game going.
In fact, said Daly, he would much rather be No. 1 in putting and other short-game statistics than he would in driving average. And the great bunker shot at San Diego just illustrated his point.
If you can hit it somewhat halfway decent out here and have a really good short game, you can play out here, Daly reasoned.
I've never doubted - I knew I could win again. I've worked too hard not to. Peter Jacobsen told me, he said, No matter what happens, John, the talent never goes away. That stuck with me for a long time.
Long John, though, is no longer a young man. He is no longer just a bomber. He is no longer a malcontent who has a short fuse on the golf course. The John Daly you saw on the golf course this year was truly a golfer, not just a man who happened to own a driver and not much else.
I feel like I'm a lot more mature, said a somber Daly. I have four kids now. Raising them is a blast. I think that kind of makes you more responsible, more aware of what's going on. It makes you fight.
This is great. Whether I play good golf or bad golf, I know when I go back to my bus, I have little John smiling or laughing or I'm changing diapers. And Austin is always happy. And I can't wait to see my daughters. I don't get to see them as much as I'd like. But it's nice to win it for the children.
Shauna (his daughter) called me from (her home in) Orlando and she was almost in tears, Daddy, you've got to win. I said, What are you doing, Shauna, are you betting the kids at school or what?'
'She goes, 'No. I just want you to win. I love you.'
It was Valentine's day. It's great for them when they go to school, My Daddy won again. That's going to feel good for them and me.