ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – On a day when you could hardly make out the Auld Gray Toon from the Old Course’s fifth tee box, a name atop the Open Championship leaderboard looked as familiar as a past-parallel backswing.
If John Daly was awakening ghosts of Opens past on Thursday in the Kingdom of Fife, they would be welcome spirits from a far-to-often sordid past.
On the flight to the United Kingdom Daly was asked by his longtime girlfriend Anna Cladakis what it was about the Old Course that inspired him. His answer was simply, “It’s magical.” On Thursday on a gray, windless day Daly had some magic of his own going, birdieing five of his first nine holes for an opening 66 that could, if fate and the fickle Scottish weather allow, make a career many thought long finished reappear.
On a links course that has a warm blanket feel to Daly, he hit driver with abandon and precision and lag-putted his way into the conversation. Stop us if you’ve heard this before. The only thing missing was the mullet.
In the 15 years since Daly made his mark with his Open Championship stunner at St. Andrews he’s lost some six stone (that’s about 80 pounds on this side of the pond) but added more baggage than one man can, or should, bear. That Daly’s damage was largely self-inflicted didn’t seem to matter as he roamed familiar fairways with a well-known swagger.
Since that magical 1995 championship Daly has been in and out of alcohol rehab, divorce court and the Tour hot seat for conduct so unbecoming it’s cost him nearly $100,000, according to a Jacksonville Times-Union report last year.
Less than five months ago he looked into a Golf Channel camera and said, essentially, he was done with professional golf. It seems pro golf wasn’t done with him.
“I’m 44 and I’ve learned a lot,” Daly said. “I’ve never run from my mistakes. I’ve always been honest with (the press). You know, it’s how you come back. For me, I’m on a comeback.”
To say the 2010 version of “Long John” is different from the swashbuckling kid who overpowered the ancient pitch in 1995 is a gross understatement. With the help of lap-band surgery Daly has his weight under control and thanks to Cladakis he has been able to keep the assortment of other vices that have caused so much pain at bay.
Daly has traded Diet Cokes for alcohol and other than an occasion chocolate fix his veracious appetite is a distant memory. He can, however, still overpower a golf course. On Thursday he hit 13 of 15 fairways, 17 of 18 greens in regulation and averaged a staggering 324 yards off the tee.
“My whole method about playing here is to worry about one bunker instead of five or six,” Daly said. “When I’m hitting the driver that well it takes a lot of things out of play.”
Daly also needed just 27 putts, including missed birdie opportunities at the 16th from 10 feet and 18th from 11 feet, prompting questions about how much better his round could have been, and the possibility that 1995 was an omen, not an aberration, of things to come.
Savor the numbers, if not the possibilities, of a Daly Old Course double. He’s currently ranked 455th in the world, was tabbed a distant 250-to-1 long shot by the betting houses and hasn’t finished in the top 10 in any event since last May (Italian Open).
On Tuesday Tiger Woods was asked if a victory this week in St. Andrews could help him along his road to redemption. For JD a second claret jug collected at the home of golf could finally stop his journey down a road to nowhere.
But that’s putting the trophy before the trials.
A win of any variety is Daly’s ultimate goal, be it PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour. A win at St. Andrews would help make sense of a lifetime of gluttony. The new and improved Daly – clad in what he called paiseltine pants (“The good thing about them is if you get dressed in the dark, any shirt is going to match,” he smiled.) – was asked if his “Wild Thing” nickname from a former life still applied.
“I don’t know, Mild Thing,” he said.
But that doesn’t work either. At least not on Thursday when he bombed drive after drive over the most cynical collection of bunkers known to man or sheep. Daly fell in love with the storied links in the 1994 Dunhill Cup and once told a friend before his ’95 victory that he could “own the place.”
“There’s just something peaceful about this place,” said Daly, a man in great need of peace for much of his life. “Whether the wind is blowing 50 mph or it’s a calm day like today, it’s just one of those places that I just love.”
As Daly made his way up the 18th fairway on Thursday a member of his inner circle couldn’t help himself, “It’s like a religious experience.” Daly played his next shot, with a putter, through the Valley of Sin. It was an apropos metaphor for a life that has been filled with far more swales than peaks, and the subtext to the week’s most important question: What’s next?