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Anticipation builds as Daly's Champions debut nears

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THE WOODLANDS, Texas – This was already going to be a good week. Weather forecasts for the Insperity Invitational have temperatures in the mid-80s with no chance of rain.

No. Chance. It sounds really good, but people in this part of east Texas need to see it – or not see it – to believe it.

They’ve received nearly 12 inches of rainfall since April 17, more than three times the normal amount this time of year, because of deadly flooding in the Houston area.

Now there is sun. And optimisim. And John Daly.

Daly is making his PGA Tour Champions debut at The Woodlands Country Club, as you may have heard. And his arrival has brought with it great anticipation.

“I don’t think we’ve ever promoted a guy’s debut on our tour as much as we’ve promoted him,” Bryan Naugle, executive director of the Insperity Invitational, said Wednesday. “We have billboards, banners, signage all over town, television commercials that we run constantly and radio spots.”

As PGA Tour Champions president Greg McLaughlin indicated recently, promoting Daly promotes the tour and, “what’s good for the tour is good for the players.”

Daly’s arrival is a boon for the senior circuit, and for his professional career. He’s played only two tournaments this year, missing the cut at the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open in March and missing the cut at the European Tour’s Qatar Masters in January. That’s four official rounds in four months.

Because of that, Daly is admittedly nervous. He knows there are a lot of expectations on him. He can handle the meet-and-greets, cocktail parties, autograph sessions and media obligations. “He’s very, very sponsor-centric,” McLaughlin said. “He gets it.”

Being a personality isn’t a problem for Daly. Being competitive, however, is.

“My game is really awful right now,” he said. “My game is nowhere where I want it to be, because I haven’t played a lot.

“I’m trying to be as prepared as I can.”

That preparation began on Sunday, when he played the Tournament Course by himself, using three balls on each hole. He then asked in for a spot in pro-ams on both Monday and Tuesday, in addition to the ones he was already slated for on Wednesday and Thursday.

Daly has an affinity for this area. He had three top-10s at this venue when it hosted the Shell Houston Open and two more when it moved to Redstone Country Club. He had only 35 top-10s in his PGA Tour career, so that’s a pretty good percentage.

Daly expects the confidence to come around at some point. He said he needs three or four starts under his belt to shake off the rust and settle in. He’s scheduled for 10 of the next 11 Champions events, as well as the Open Championship and PGA Championship on the regular circuit. He's been craving a steady schedule for years – without a full-time PGA Tour card since 2007 – and he now has it.

But until he finds his comfort zone, you might see a milder Wild Thing. He’s carrying a 1-iron in his bag this week and expects to use it off the tee more than his driver. “I feel like I’m hitting that really, really well,” he said. “It’s the best part of my game right now.”

Of course, fans could alter his game plan. And there’s going to be a lot of them out there this week.

Naugle said the tournament doesn’t sell tickets, rather they have corporate sponsors (Insperity, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Woodforest National Bank and MD Anderson Cancer Center) pay the daily gate fees. They are also giving fans Daly bobbleheads during Round 1, in addition to hosting Loudmouth Friday, where people can wear their garish apparel for a chance to meet Daly and get his autograph.

Not that getting Daly’s signature should be too difficult. As McLaughlin, who was president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation for 14 years before his current position, noted, this isn’t the PGA Tour.

“You have a realistic chance to get an autograph here,” he said. “Fans are different here, they are more respectful. And the players are more accommodating. It's a more mellow atmosphere. ... These aren’t the huge crowds of Greg Norman in the ‘90s or Tiger Woods in the 2000s."

Friday, however, could be different as Daly plays alongside good friends Fuzzy Zoeller and Peter Jacobsen, teeing off at 1:30 p.m. ET.

“This is a big deal. John Daly is a star," Naugle said. "If we have weather like we’ve had today, Friday is going to be crazy.”