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Rough Going
Jaime Diaz
November 18, 1996
John Daly is hoping that one bad year doesn't turn out to be the beginning of the end
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November 18, 1996

Rough Going

John Daly is hoping that one bad year doesn't turn out to be the beginning of the end

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You might remember John Daly, formerly the longest hitter in golf, formerly the biggest force to hit the game since Arnold Palmer and currently the Wild Thing who in the Tigercentric world of 1996 is rapidly becoming a mild thing. Even before the late-season heroics of Woods, Daly had managed an all-too-effective disappearing act from the main stage. Since reaching his zenith by winning the British Open in 1995, Daly has played the worst golf of his six-year career on Tour. This season he had only one top-10 finish while falling to 121st on the money list. And his troubling tendency to crush it and rush it when he's out of contention has intensified.

Still, there's no doubt that Daly has lost more than any other player during Woods's ascendancy. Daly's galleries, the largest on Tour since he won the 1991 PGA, have thinned now that he has lost his long-drive mantle to Woods, whose 302.8-yard average was 14 yards better than Daly's 288.8. But Daly's conundrum goes beyond the fans and their penchant to follow the leader.

In September, Daly fired his longtime caddie and erstwhile friend, Greg Rita, after hearing that Rita had considered working for Woods. (Rita is now on Scott Hoch's bag.) At the Lincoln-Mercury Kapalua International last week on Maui, Hawaii, Daly said that he might make an equipment change, part company with Wilson Sporting Goods—with whom he has seven years remaining on a 10-year contract once estimated to be worth $30 million—and play without a ball- or club-endorsement deal next year. Most ominously, Daly seems to be in a cage match again with his addictions and possibly with depression. In a sense, the two-time major-championship winner is starting over at 30.

An important first step will take place on Thanksgiving weekend, when he meets Woods in the Skins Game. Plain and simple, Daly thinks he's longer than Woods and is eager to prove it. Daly says the stats lie because he often uses an iron off the tee, and he has gone so far as to calculate that in his last five starts of the season he averaged 314 yards with his driver. "I'm not scared of Tiger," Daly says. "I'm not scared to go head-to-head. I'm not scared to have a long-drive contest with him. Who's to say who's longer? We'll find out at the Skins Game. I'm looking forward to it."

Those rooting for Daly enjoy hearing him talk like that. They hope that the jarring effect of Woods will shake Daly out of his stupor. "If Tiger Woods hasn't gotten John Daly's at tention, something is wrong," says Scott Simpson. "Here's a 20-year-old kid who's longer and straighter than John, who's in shape, who's dedicated and who has become the most popular golfer. It might be enough to get John to think, Hey, maybe I should try practicing."

Daly, however, contends that he has practiced more than at any time in his career. "This is the first year I've really busted my ass, but for some reason it hasn't kicked in," he says. "I'd hit 500 wedges, think to myself, I've got it now, then go out the next day and lay sod over the ball. It gets tough to keep practicing. Maybe I don't know how hard golf is."

There's no question the game is hard the way Daly's playing it. Not only did he finish last on the Tour—188th—in driving accuracy, hitting only 57% of the fairways, but he was also fourth from last in percentage of birdies on par-3 holes, which along with his 174th ranking in greens in regulation indicates that he is as much of a scattershot with his irons as he is with his driver.

Daly went to Kapalua looking to have some fun, although it is the place where he picked up during the second round in 1993 and was suspended by then commissioner Deane Beman. Kapalua is perhaps the most user-friendly tournament of the year, and Daly and his wife, Paulette, enjoyed a low-pressure week that centered on activities at the players' hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, as much as the 72 holes of golf. On Thursday night Daly took his electric guitar on stage during a concert by Hootie and the Blowfish and soloed the introduction to Bob Dylan's Knockin' on Heaven's Door. After the third round Daly went to a high school gym and played in two full-court basketball games with members of the band and Tour players Brad Faxon, Billy Andrade, Woody Austin and Jim McGovern, got back to the hotel in time to see Evander Holyfield upset Mike Tyson and finished the night by attending a Vince Gill concert.

On the course, though, Daly didn't look as if he were enjoying himself. He played poorly, shooting a one-under-par 289 (71-75-73-70) to finish 43rd, 20 strokes behind winner Paul Stankowski. His game was erratic and uninspired. As he has all year, Daly seemed devoid of intensity, and while he never lost his temper, he could never summon any enthusiasm either. "I don't think I've had fun on the golf course since I won at Atlanta," says Daly, referring to his 1994 victory in the BellSouth Classic.

Was he forgetting about his dramatic triumph in the British Open at St. Andrews? "Not really, no," he says.

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