There was something different about John Daly at the PGA Championship, and it wasn't just the funny cap, the slim waistline and the rediscovered resolve on the course. What had changed was the response Daly generated. Gone was the pumped-up machismo, the testosterone-fueled fans bellowing You da man! and the caddie shouting Kill! on every tee. Daly is no longer engulfed by the hysteria that accompanies larger-than-life folk heroes. Instead he receives softly spoken encouragement and measured applause, an acknowledgment by his many fans that this most human of athletes has been to the brink and made it back. Again. "I can feel the difference," Daly said after a second-round 73, which was sandwiched between an opening 66 and a 77-70 weekend that left him six over par and in 29th place. "They're cheering for me as a person, not a golfer. It means everything to me to feel that."
That Daly was greeted warmly is no surprise, considering that he has been welcomed back so many times before. With his hangdog countenance and puppy-dog eyes, little-boy sweetness and swashbuckling on-course style, Daly, 31, has always been likable, and remains so. His conduct since bursting onto the scene with his storybook win at the 1991 PGA has ranged from regrettable to deplorable, but what separates Daly from the Michael Irvins of the world is an obsession with atonement. He is addicted to making things right in his life. Getting his golf game in shape is only a small part of that. Still, this was Daly's most meaningful performance since his victory at the Old Course in St. Andrews in the '95 British Open. He tussled with Winged Foot for every stroke.
"There was a time when he was going through the motions and really didn't care. You don't see that now," said Paul Azinger, one of Daly's playing partners for the first two rounds. "He was competitive. He cared. He cared greatly. You could see it in his eyes and his attitude. It was a noticeable difference."
These days there is less of Daly to admire, and that, too, is good news. He weighs 195 pounds, down from a high of 238 in March. This is the result of an intensive fitness regimen and fun-free diet that began after Daly walked off the course at Congressional midway through the second round of the U.S. Open, unable to go on because of his physical condition and the shakes that came with a sobriety he had rediscovered in the spring.
It is his tango with the bottle—Daly started drinking before he was a teenager—that marred his past, defines his present and clouds his future. His most recent such transgression occurred on March 27, when he withdrew after the first round of the Players Championship following a late-night binge so excessive that it landed him in a hospital. Two days later he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, Calif. On April 8 his third wife, Paulette, filed for divorce. On his birthday, April 28, Daly was dumped by his primary sponsor, Wilson. (He was in the middle of a 10-year, $30 million deal.) "The darkest days of my life," he says.
So far Daly has thrown himself into his new sobriety, going to as many as four Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week and reading from the organization's handbook at least twice a day. Such activities are a stark departure from his previous attempts to stay dry, when he resisted any outside help. In retrospect it's not surprising that he failed, only that it took him so long to do so. "I wasn't doing it the right way," he says. "I wasn't going to meetings. I wasn't doing the reading. I wasn't talking to anybody about things. I didn't take my condition seriously enough."
When Daly returned to the Tour at Hartford in late July, he received about 30 sobriety medals—given to AA members to mark various milestones of their sobriety—from fans who have been down the same road. Daly uses the medals as ball markers and sources of inspiration. "When I look down there on the green, it reminds me: Hey, you're all right," he says. "I need that reminding all the time." Daly wears his own coin on a chain around his neck. On one side it has the number 24 (for 24 hours a day of sobriety) and on the other the serenity prayer. For yet another reminder, he has adorned his golf bag with the words GOD SERENITY COURAGE WISDOM.
"He has tried hard to level off his emotions, on and off the golf course," says Brian Alexander, Daly's caddie. "So far it has worked, instead of him going real high and real low like he used to." Indeed, Daly did an admirable job of maintaining his composure on a brutal Winged Foot layout, with two exceptions: On the 12th hole last Saturday he blocked his tee shot onto the adjacent 17th fairway and threw his Big Bertha driver into the woods, where it was retrieved by marshals. On Sunday he got into an argument with an official after being denied a drop from behind a rain shelter on the 6th hole.
Daly's inconsistent play was due more to the rust on his game than major-championship pressure. He has played little since March and is breaking in new clubs, the result of a reported live-year, $10 million deal with Callaway. "Everybody's been telling me to be patient," he says, "to not hit so many balls. I'm going to hit 'em until I feel better."
One of the more charming scenes of the week happened in the Friday twilight, when Daly and Tiger Woods parked themselves next to each other on the driving range. Both were going about their business when, during a lull. Daly uncorked a thunderous drive. As the thousand or so fans lining the range cheered, Daly hit another, drawing an even more raucous whoop. With a faint grin he glanced up at Woods, who had stopped hitting and was leaning on his driver, hand on hip, watching the show. Woods then turned to the crowd, flashed a smile and teed up a ball. The fans roared. Woods brought the club back majestically and...did a little half swing, bunting the ball 100 yards. Then his practice session resumed in earnest. "I can learn a lot from him," says Daly. "He handles himself so well."