ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — John Daly is one year older than I am, and even though we couldn’t be more different, I still see my reflection in his weather-worn face. We came across each other years ago, when we were both young and trying to figure out the world. He was a 25-year-old golfing phenomenon. I was a 24-year-old sports columnist without a clue.
The first golf tournament I ever attended was the 1992 Doral Open in Miami. I was sent down there by the Augusta Chronicle to write about several golfers for our Masters preview section. One of the golfers I was assigned was John Daly.
Of course, I had no idea how to go about actually talking to John Daly. He had, months earlier, shocked the sporting world by showing up as a ninth alternate for the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick and then overpowering the golf course and beating the best players in the world. He called his style “grip it and rip it,” and he swung past parallel, and he infused a new energy into the game. In other words, he did not have time for rookie sportswriters who knew nothing about golf.
But he made time. There has always been a kind streak in John Daly. He told me to show up the next morning for his Pro-Am round. I’ve told the story many times before — he let me walk with him and he talked about everything. We walked together for four or five holes, then an angry voice from behind us shouted: “Hey, you writing a book? Some of us paid to play with John Daly.” That was Dan Marino. I turned every shade of red. Daly turned back, smiled, said “Hey, Dan, you are playing with me.” And he continued the interview. I’ll always love him for that.
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Up close, his talent was beyond mesmerizing. He’d answer a question, smoke a cigarette, pull a club and without any thought walk over to the ball and hit breathtaking shots. There’s no real point now talking about what John Daly might have been — Nicklaus once predicted he’d win six Masters — but I can honestly say that all these years later I’ve still never seen a more amazing display of raw golfing talent.
Thursday, after 10 holes at The Open, John Daly was 4-under par. He wore garish pants, his hair had faded and thinned, his face had creased and burned. He finished the round at 1-under, then gave two shots back on Friday.
Daly’s life took many unexpected turns after we first met. He won an Open Championship at St. Andrews. He was addicted to everything that is addictive. He married and remarried. He sang country songs. His life was a country song.
And as we stood out there in the Scottish wind, I thought about all the years that have gone by for both of us. Too many years. Over the next few holes, Daly faded, but that was expected. I was just glad he got another moment on the leaderboard.