FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Three PGA of America volunteers are nervously pacing in a paved lot near Bethpage Black’s 10th tee.
One of them checks his watch; it’s just 15 minutes until the highly anticipated 12:54 p.m. tee time here at the PGA Championship. “Should be any moment now,” he whispers, and then sure enough, a silver Cadillac Escalade peels around the corner and parks in front of a dusty path.
“There he is,” the volunteer says, stepping toward the SUV. “The man, the myth, the legend.”
John Daly opens the door and gingerly slips out of the backseat. He’s wearing $110 New York Yankees-themed Loudmouth pants and holding a 21-ounce McDonald’s cup filled with Diet Coke. Standing next to his bag, he fiddles in his pocket for a cigarette.
“You have a couple hundred yards to go,” the official instructs him, pointing through the trees toward No. 10. “But we’ve got a cart on the way.”
Daly takes a drag. A few minutes pass.
“The hardest part is getting the cart,” he grumbles.
A few more minutes elapse. The volunteer is getting antsy. He leans into his walkie-talkie: “John Daly is still waiting for his cart.”
“Well, I can wait for a cart for you here,” he says, “or you can make sure you don’t miss your tee time.”
At last, some optimism – a cameraman slows down, gawking at Daly. He has an empty passenger seat.
“Can I steal your cart for a second?” the volunteer asks.
“Oh, no, no,” the man says, stepping on the gas. “I need my cart.”
Daly’s caddie grows impatient – he needs the first-round pin sheet. He heads toward the tee.
“The cart should be on its way,” the volunteer says, turning to Daly, “but I understand if you want to walk. I don’t want to delay you.”
And so Daly sets off, hobbling down the path, nodding at the few well-wishers in the trees.
It’s 12:48 – just six minutes before Daly’s tee time – when the PGA official finally arrives. He’s driving a green, topless ClubCar, with a white No. 515 sticker on the side. Relieved, Daly hops in, wheels around and drives back toward the tee. Even with Tiger Woods’ group nearby, Daly is feted like a rock star, high-fiving fans along the rope line.
The enthusiasm doesn’t dim even when Daly tugs his opening tee shot into the thick left rough. He limps to the cart, throws two more Diet Coke cans into the cubby, maneuvers around the forward tee and then eventually guides his cart down the mown path leading to the fairway.
“I love this,” a man in a Mets T-shirt says, as Daly drives away, “but this is a f------ embarrassment to golf.”
Thursday at the PGA, Daly became the first player since Casey Martin (in 1998 and 2012) to ride a cart in a major championship. Martin’s need for assistance was obvious – he suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, which restricts circulation in his lower leg and makes walking 18 holes, let alone a full 72, nearly impossible. But Daly’s request was met with more skepticism, even though his application was approved through the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Martin was born with circulation problems. Daly’s body has begun to betray him in recent years, no doubt an accumulation of an off-course lifestyle that mimicked his grip-it-and-rip-it style. Earlier this week, Tiger Woods appeared to scoff at Daly’s excuses – “I walked on a broken leg,” he said – and that only further emboldened Long John’s many critics.
“I wish more people knew the facts,” said his longtime fiancée, Anna Cladakis, as she walked along Bethpage’s back nine Thursday. There’s the torn meniscus. The osteoarthritis. The diabetes diagnosis last fall. “It’s a combination of things.”
Needing to overhaul his diet, Daly has mostly cut out alcohol, sweets and fried foods, losing 28 pounds, but he’s still a big man, and that only adds to the strain on his balky knee. Specialists have told him that he’s too young for a knee replacement, and that procedure has complications: Because the cartilage in his right knee is deteriorating, he’d either have to repeat the surgery later in life or dramatically change his unique swing, at age 53.
Even with the aid of a cart, the pain is intense, especially when walking downhill. Daly’s knee after the round is the size of a softball.
“He told me that he feels like he’s playing on one and a half legs,” Cladakis said. “On a pain scale, it’s a 9.5, almost a 10. It feels like 10,000 bone spurs.”
Daly uses a cart all season on the PGA Tour Champions, but he was denied a request by the USGA at last year’s Senior Open, because he didn’t fill out the two dozen pages of documentation. His request to the PGA was approved through the ADA committee. When asked whether he was OK with the PGA allowing Daly to use a cart this week, Martin, now the men’s coach at Oregon, said in a text Thursday: “Sure. The doctors looked at it and said it was ADA-compliant. So yes.”
And so there was Daly on Thursday, cruising around sprawling Bethpage Black, weaving through hundreds of spectators and trying to avoid leaving tire marks on the rain-softened fairways. The PGA met with Daly before his Wednesday practice round and offered a sheet of suggested routes, comments and rules. In his cart he couldn’t carry any equipment – only cigarettes and Diet Coke. He couldn’t drive ahead and then circle back to his ball. He needed to keep pace with his two playing partners, fellow PGA winners Rich Beem and Y.E. Yang.
“He’s lighting up a dart and drinking a Diet Coke,” Beem said, “and I’m like, 'That’s awesome. You go, John. You go, baby.'”
If nothing else, Daly’s mode of transportation allowed for more fan interaction.
While slowing down along the rope line on No. 11, a fan told him: “Hey, John – you gave me your glove here in ’02. I started in golf because of that.”
After putting out, Daly limped down the hill and plopped into his seat. “We washed it for you – you’re all good,” a fan crowed. Others tried to hand him Budweiser bottles. Some tried to bum cigarettes. While watching Daly blow past, McDonald’s cup in hand, one fan yelled: “Hey, just make sure you don’t get a DUI!”
It was like that all afternoon Thursday, mighty-hard work for a birdie-free 75 that left him with virtually no chance of making the cut.
“He’s in pain – he’s literally in pain,” Beem said. “I love John to tears, but you’ve got to wonder: Why would you want to put yourself through that test, especially at a venue like this where it’s so long and it’s so hard?”
Daly said it’s the same reason why he’s already applied for a cart for this year’s Open Championship.
“It’s very awkward, and it’s to a point where it’s almost embarrassing,” he said, “but I love the PGA and because I’m a past champion, I feel obligated and I really want to play. ...
“It’s not really ego. I just feel committed, and I feel like past champions, if we can play, no matter what it takes, I think we should.”
Daly said only a few fans heckled him for needing a cart, but “99.9 percent” were positive. It’s been that way his entire career. “A lot of fans came up to me and said, ‘JD, I don’t care if you showed up in a shopping cart – I just want to see you play,’” Cladakis said. “And he thought that was cool. He’s one of them. He’s just a grown-up fraternity kid.”
A nearby spectator overheard Cladakis and tapped her on the shoulder, wanting to interject.
“It’s nice having him out here,” he said, “even if people are talking a lot of s--- about him.
“I gave him a fist bump on the way to his first hole, and I told him exactly what you just said: ‘One of us.’”
That unwavering support is enough for Daly – for now – but tonight in the RV he’ll need to ice his throbbing knee.
“That’s all you can do,” he said. “Hopefully I can come out tomorrow and fight through it.”