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Daly bashes ball, keeps it straight and enjoys debut

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THE WOODLANDS, Texas – Uh, oh. Here we go.

As soon as John Daly hit his approach shot into the water on the par-4 seventh hole Friday at the Insperity Invitational, that was the first thought.

Daly, making his much anticipated debut on the PGA Tour Champions, had been piddling along for his first six holes. He was hitting fairways, finding greens, but nothing was dropping. Until his second at No. 7 dropped into the drink.

The ball cleared land so Daly was able to get a drop behind the green. He chipped up to 3 feet and made the bogey putt. That’s when Daly’s round really began.

The day officially started at 11:25 a.m., local time. Daly arrived on site one hour and five minutes before his tee time. He finally made it to the range at 11:55, signing hats and flags and bobblehead dolls (of his likeness – a giveaway on Day 1 of the event) en route. Four minutes later – and 31 minutes until show time – he finally hit his first practice ball.

Daly took six one-handed swings with his wedge to start, only five with his driver near the close, and 38 total. After 36 putts on the practice green, it was finally go time. Almost.

Daly posed for photos with the Insperity staff – all clad in Loudmouth pants and shorts – and with the members of his threesome, Fuzzy Zoeller and Peter Jacobsen.

Zoeller showed up in green pants, large Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka logos adorning both thighs. He then presented Daly with a bottle as a form of payment for a bet he made years ago with Daly that he would never reach 50 years of age.

Daly, for the record, had on a light blue shirt and red pants that looked like they were covered in amoebas. He was pretty tame compared to others in the gallery, many of which were wearing their loudest Loudmouth apparel.

After the festivities settled, Daly hit his first official shot as a senior at 12:35 p.m. – five minutes after the scheduled start, but, as they would soon find out, there was no rush. The crowd was seven deep and few remained for the following group.

Daly used driver on the par-5 first, something he would do only five times on Friday. Daly had previously stated that his game plan was to primarily use 1-iron off the tee, and he abided.

Speaking of abiding, The Dude was in attendance. Or, at least, a reasonable facsimile of “The Big Lebowski” protagonist. A guy walking around in a purple robe, cargo shorts, sandals, long hair and a goatee asked Daly for a pack of cigarettes at the practice green. Daly didn’t abide this time, but he joked with the guy.

The crowd, on the whole, was fairly tame, never raucous. Even with a couple of hundred fans in tow, there weren’t any disruptions or over-the-top outbursts. A guy offered an attractive woman $100 if she’d yell, “Take your shirt off!” after Daly teed off on the 11th hole. She gave it some thought, but kept silent.

The crowd, you could tell, was waiting for something to happen, a reason to get a little nuts. But there wasn’t much going on early. Daly made par after par, displaying steady play for someone with only four competitive rounds under his belt this year.

And then came the seventh.

“It was a 178-yard 8-iron, and I had the 7 (iron) out and I said, ‘Well, I’ll just hit the 8, see if I can get it right up there in the chute,’ and I just flushed it right over the flag and it ended up going about 191 (yards) into the water. But I think that’s just from being pumped up,” Daly said.

Maybe it was because he was playing with Fuzzy and Jake. Maybe it was because he got up and down for bogey. Maybe he knew the water ball was a bad break, not poor play.

Whatever the reason, Daly remained calm, joking with his guys on the next tee box. There was a lot of that, because there was a lot of downtime. The group routinely had 10-minute spans between holing out on the green and hitting tee shots on the next hole.

As Jacobsen said during the round, “I’m playing with two of the fastest players out here.”

He’s no slouch, himself. On the par-4 17th, for example, the green cleared and Daly hit first. Eight seconds later, Zoeller hit. Ten seconds later, Jacobsen hit. It was like that all day. The round took four hours and 23 minutes, but would have been cut in half had it just been the three of them out there.

There was a very casual feel to the round. There was the camaraderie; lots of fan interaction, particularly during the walks to the tee boxes and the subsequent waits; Daly was drinking Diet Coke from his Dallas Cowboys tumbler and placing it a foot from his ball when he’d hit; Fuzzy was riding around in a cart.

While Zoeller rode, Jacobsen walked with Daly. “God bless Jake for walking,” Daly said. “He’s got that bad hip. But he said, ‘I just wanted to walk with you today.’”

Jacobsen could have used a ride from Zoeller to get from his ball to Daly’s, when the driver came out. Daly destroyed a drive on the par-5 13th and had to be 90 yards in front of the others. He pounded another one on the par-5 15th and was at least 50 yards clear.

Daly averaged 317.5 yards off the tee, which led the field on Day 1. Jacobsen averaged 246.5 yards, Zoeller 242.5 yards. Surprisingly, Daly only made only one birdie on the four par 5s.

The nerves were present for Daly, and he said he never managed to fully shake them. But he outwardly appeared comfortable and, when that first birdie putt fell on the par-3 eighth, confidence came with it.

He lashed a beautiful 1-iron off the ninth tee and made his second consecutive birdie. He continued to hit fairways and greens, 13 of the former and 16 of the latter, but couldn’t covert several birdie opportunities inside of 15 feet. He managed to make a couple, as well as a bogey at the par-3 14th, and finished with a 2-under 70.

“Hopefully, I just feed off some of the good things I was doing and, you know, just thinking about some of the things that weren’t so good,” Daly said. “My three-quarter shot wasn’t very sharp today, but other than that, it was really solid.

“I mean, it’s something I really didn’t expect.”