"Grip it and rip it" has always been an ironic catchphrase for golfer John Daly. While the "rip it" part makes sense—at 37 he can still hit the ball prodigious distances—his self-destructive tendencies (SI, Nov. 3, 2003) have made him famous mostly for losing his grip. There is no denying Daly's talent (he won the 1991 PGA Championship and the '95 British Open with a compelling show of brute force and finesse), but his game has long suffered under the heavy handicaps of substance abuse, compulsive gambling and clinical depression.
So, it was startling last week to see a portly, chain-smoking Daly, sometimes accompanied by his fourth wife, Sherrie, exhume his career with a playoff victory at the Buick Invitational in La Jolla, Calif. Even more amazing was how he won. Beached in a bunker behind the 18th green, 96 feet from the hole, Daly hit the sand shot of his life to within seven inches of the hole for a tap-in birdie. His playoff opponents, Luke Donald and Chris Riley, responded by missing birdie putts of less than seven feet. "It's just been forever since I won on U.S. soil," a tearful Daly said afterward, his ears ringing from the high-decibel chants of his partisans. "You begin to wonder if you can win anymore."
Daly had gone 8� years without a PGA Tour win, and last year he finished 171st on the money list. In October, however, he pulled himself together and won, with a terrific final round, the Kolon Korean Open, an Asian tour event. Six weeks later, showing a confidence we hadn't seen in him in years, Daly won a highly regarded Callaway Golf Pebble Beach Invitational, a non PGA event. Since then Daly, never a range rat, has been working on his game at his home in Rogers, Ark., and in California with teaching pro Chipper Cecil, and hitting as many as 10 pitch shots and 10 putts per hole during practice rounds. "I saw a lot of determination in John," says Cecil. "Not to go out and beat everybody—just to prove what he's always known, that he can play this game as well as anyone."
Daly's conversion to good work habits got little attention on Sunday, but his stats tell story. He one-putted 36 times, second most in tournament, and he got down in two from the sand 11 of 13 times over four rounds—which you can't do if your training regimen consists largely of right-arm curls with a bottle of booze.
Grip it and rip it? Not this time. Daly got back to the winner's circle by following a much older adage: "Practice makes perfect."