Now Momma Lou makes chocolate gravy; Lord, she is so nice /Poppa Jim pulled me aside and gave me some advice/ He said, "Quit spending all your money on all those old skanks/Just put some in your pocket and put some in the bank"—JOHN DALY, "All My Exes Wear Rolexes"
Except for the part about winning the British Open, John Daly's life has always played out like a bad country song, with all the touchstones of the genre: the wrong women, battles with the bottle, squandered fortunes and a scrape with the law (to say nothing of the PGA Tour commissioner). In the beginning—circa 1991—Daly's flaws contributed as much to his popularity as did the awesome drives he launched with his hyperextended swing. On a Tour full of country-club types, Daly was raw and real, with problems you could relate to. (Well, some of us could relate to some of them.) But in the eight years since his last PGA Tour victory, Daly, 37, has regressed from contender to curiosity. Just when it seemed he had lost all his shock value, Daly has, over the last three months, gone on a self-destructive binge that has put his golf game and personal life in disarray—and his problems are far from over. " John Daly needs help," says a member of his inner circle. "The Tour feels that way. Everyone close to John feels that way."
Daly's tailspin began in July. On the 23rd his fourth wife, Sherrie, gave birth to John Patrick Daly II, a.k.a. Little John. He is Big John's third child, from as many mothers. Five days after the birth, Sherrie and her parents—Alvis Miller and his wife of 39 years, Billie—were indicted in a Mississippi federal court for allegedly laundering more than $1.2 million in illegal drug profits. Sherrie could face up to 20 years in prison. Daly may be an aspiring country music crooner, but Tammy Wynette he ain't. "I believe they're not guilty, and I'm standing 100 percent behind them," he told SI in late September. "Granted, if Sherrie is going to prison for 20 years, I'll have to divorce her."
Since his wife's arrest, Daly has been disqualified or has withdrawn from four of his seven Tour starts. At the 84 Lumber Classic, he started shaking uncontrollably and had to be carted off the course. At the Texas Open he raked in a missed putt while the ball was still moving and didn't report it to Tour officials until after he had signed his scorecard—an automatic DQ. Afterward there were reports (denied by Daly) that he trashed the interior of his $1.4 million bus. "He's not really a golfer any longer," a Tour player said. "More like a freak show."
A week later at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, Daly six-putted a green, chasing after his ball and "hockey-sticking" it into the cup, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. Once the game's biggest draw, Daly was dismissed as "sad" by tournament director Robert Morgan, who added, "If he continues the way he is, the John Daly persona is not going to be an attraction anymore."
In addition to the real problems Daly faces, he has had to deal with a torrent of rumors in recent months. Last weekend, the New Jersey wire service SportsTicker cited sources saying, incorrectly, that Daly had entered an alcohol rehab clinic on orders from PGA commissioner Tim Finchem. "I'm just frustrated that I'm having to defend myself on things that aren't even happening," Daly says. "It's been a joke."
In the wake of his wife's indictment, two of Daly's longtime associates called it quits. At the PGA Championship in August, Daly was fired by his caddie, Mick Peterson, who made it plain that he no longer wanted to have anything to do with Sherrie Daly. Donnie Crabtree, John's personal assistant and driver for 10 years and his closest friend since the first grade, quit a week later. "It's hard watching somebody that you love self-destruct," Crabtree says. "John can go weeks without drinking, but he's a binger. He'll drink and not eat, smoke three packs a day. He drinks Diet Cokes like they're going out of style. No rest, high stress, lots of caffeine, lots of nicotine. You add all those things together, and you get what's happened over the last six or seven weeks."
Asked if he thinks Daly—who denies any recent binge drinking—has become a danger to himself or others, Crabtree says he doesn't consider his friend "consciously suicidal" but cites the belief of people in 12-step programs that you have to hit rock bottom before you can come back. "My fear with John is that his rock bottom might be something you don't come back from."
Early last month Daly thought he'd arrived at a simple solution for his latest round of problems: dump the wife. On Oct. 5, the day PGA senior vice president and chief of operations Henry Hughes called Daly to express concerns over his recent behavior, Daly instructed his attorney to file divorce papers in Memphis. Daly then flew to Seoul for the Korean Open, an Asian tour event that had ponied up an appearance fee for him. A world away from his troubles, Daly summoned one of the most stunning performances of his career, shooting a back-nine 32 on Sunday, Oct. 12, to win his first tournament in more than two years. The field was weak, and the course wasn't exactly Pebble Beach, but for Daly the victory was monumental. "Your adrenaline gets pumping when you have a chance to win," he says. "I was hitting my driver 30 or 40 yards farther than I normally do."
The day after the tournament Daly rested in a suite at the Paris Las Vegas hotel and casino in Las Vegas. In a relaxed but subdued conversation—one of several with SI over the past six weeks—he said that his divorce would be governed by a prenuptial agreement that he and Sherrie signed in 2001. On various occasions, he said, he was physically and verbally abused by his wife in front of friends, family, other Tour players, the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish and, in one colorful incident, three strippers at a charity golf outing. He also claimed that although his wife had told him that she and her parents were targets of a federal investigation, she had not disclosed that it involved the laundering of drug profits. (Sherrie denies having known this herself.)