KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – John Daly walked out of the scoring trailer on this humid day and pulled out a cigarette. He didn’t have a lighter. So he held the heater in his hand while he did a brief radio interview.
Next, a handler lit Daly’s cigarette as he met with a gaggle of assembled media. Daly spoke for 15 minutes on myriad issues – his schedule, his play, his family, his attitude – then walked off to find famous friends Darius Rucker and Dan Marino waiting with a bear hug.
'It's great to see him playing in my hometown,' said Rucker, a longtime Daly friend who was born and raised in nearby Charleston.
Five minutes later, Daly signed autographs for 10 minutes. At every step, Daly’s lady friend Anna Cladakis – wearing obnoxious, matching pants with orange, black and white – was by his side.
For anyone else, the aforementioned scene would be surreal. For Daly, it’s just the first round of the PGA Championship, where he shot 4-under 68 to vault into contention and lather the Ocean Course gallery.
Daly, now 46, is a legend, has been since this championship in 1991 at Crooked Stick where he went from unknown to cult hero in a matter of 72 holes. Since that Indiana day, Daly won the British Open in 1995 but aside from that has done nothing to speak of in major championships.
He’s had trials and tribulations, divorces, financial difficulties and drinking problems all play out in the public. He’s withdrawn from more tournaments over the last decade than anyone else in the game, leading some international associations to say they’ll never give Daly an exemption again.
But that’s why people love him so much. He’s real. For better or worse.
“It’s just like my golf game, it’s up and down,” Daly said about his life and why people are attracted to him. “Everybody’s life is up and down. It’s how we battle to get through it, and I think people relate to that.”
Fellow players relate too.
“He's always been great to me,” Tiger Woods said. “I have always rooted for him. I have always been a John Daly fan and a friend.”
Woods then told a story of meeting Daly for the first time when Woods was 13 at a tournament in Arkansas. Daly hit a long iron shot so hard onto the middle of the green on a par-5 that the ball was no longer round once it stopped.
“I've never seen anybody hit the ball that hard,” Woods said.
Daly’s first round here at the Ocean Course didn't seem hard, which even impressed him. His up and down for par on the brutal par-4, 501-yard closing hole was a sign that his mind is in the right place. He was not impressed with his chip shot but still focused enough to make the downhill putt and salvage momentum heading into Round 2. There have been plenty of other times in Daly’s career where he’d have three-putted in a similar situation and lost his cool.
It was smooth sailing for Long John for most of the day. He recorded four birdies and eagle and two bogeys on a day where there was little wind, which made the course as getable as it’s going to be all week.
Some may be surprised that Daly played so well, but things seem to be in order in his life. He recently helped get his young son Little John through the third grade, his two daughters have moved in with him and he seems to have a strong bond with Cladakis, whom he’s been dating for several years.
Daly has been playing a lot this year, which is a key to success. With little status on the PGA Tour he’s still managed 17 starts this year – a mixture of events on the European and PGA tours. He tied for fifth-place last week at the Reno-Tahoe Open, his best finish on Tour this year.
“I think it’s just kind of been building up for the last five or six weeks,” Daly said. “When I get on a run, six, seven, eight weeks in a row, I feel like I have a better chance at playing well.”