After John Daly first made his mark in golf, winning the 1991 PGA, some of the golf magazines I ran pictures of Daly and a young Jack Nicklaus at the top of their swings. The similarities were uncanny: the massive legs, the huge hip turns, the drumstick forearms, the clubheads dangling way under the parallel line. Daly could do it, Nicklaus, ever generous, said. He could be the next one. Later, when Daly got in trouble with alcohol and bad marriages and hotel furniture, Nicklaus, ever generous, offered his help. He invited Big John to have lunch, to call, to play practice rounds with him. Daly, the damn fool, showed no interest.
Last week, at the most beautiful place in golfdom, both men said goodbye to the U.S. Open, possibly forever. Their exits, their lives, our feelings for them, couldn't be more different. About the only thing the two share is the knack for a difficult game and the position at the top of their swings, in old photos, anyway.
On Friday, Nicklaus, with no chance of making the cut, played the home hole at Pebble Beach with a smashed driver, a flushed three-wood from 260 yards and three putts: a par. Thousands of paying fans filled his ears with sustained applause. The lower lip of the best U.S. Open player ever—better than Hogan, better than Jones—began to quiver. He walked over to his wife, Barbara, and said, "That's the end of it."
Forty-four consecutive Opens. Back in the fairway, a threesome of old pros, all Open winners—Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Tom Watson-stood clapping. Watson took a towel from his caddie and dabbed his eyes. Later, Nicklaus, a career .400 needler, called Watson "a baby."
On Thursday, John Daly, with every chance of making the cut, came to Pebble's 18th. He was three over for the day, respectable enough. His first tee shot was a yard out-of-bounds, but he didn't realize it until he had finished a foggy 300-yard walk. His next two drives finsihed in the Pacific. Playing haphazardly, he made a 14, 83 for the day. On his way out of the scorer's tent, he waved his puffy hand goodbye. He would not be returning for his second round, the baby. Daly's timing, as usual, was poor. Had he withdrawn a day earlier, someone else could have taken his spot. What a shame.
Daly's whole life is a shame. In terms of talent, the raw ability to play shots. Daly's is the best I've ever seen. When he was o his game, he was like an idiot savant. He would see the shot in his head, yank a club and make the shot happen. Five summers ago, he won a British Open on the Old Course. Winning at St. Andrews takes luck, nerve and golfing genius. Ask Nicklaus.
The USGA gives British Open victors invitations to the U.S. Open for five years, and Daly squandered his last one at Pebble. He can qualify for the 2001 Open at Southern Hills, but the chances of that appear remote. What seems more likely is that he'll wind up on the side of a road, his limp body draped over a steering wheel. For his sake, for the sake of his family, for the sake of anybody else who might be on the road and in his way, for the sake of his fans, myself among them, I pray that doesn't happen. But that's where his life seems headed.
Anyone who has spent time with Daly knows that he's a nice, but mixed-up, 34-year-old with a slew of problems, alcoholism chief among them. He shouldn't be playing pro golf. Anyone who encourages him to do so is—in the word 12-steppers use—an enabler. Daly should be saying, I'll be back when I'm ready.
Of course Watson cried when Nicklaus made his Open farewell. Nicklaus enabled Watson to define the moments of his life, and Nicklaus's passage has marked time for you and me as well. When I was born in 1960, Nicklaus was already a great golfer, and when I graduated from high school in 1978, Nicklaus was at the peak of his power. When I got my first job on a daily newspaper, in 1986, Nicklaus, his powers waning, was still a great golfer. A great loser, too. A great sportsman. The best ever. You, no doubt, have your own way of marking the years.
Now he is saying it's over. Where exactly does that leave us?