Friday 22 September 2017

Golf's everyman no longer able to mix it with big boys

The chances of anyone doing a John Daly this week are slim, says Lawrence Donegan

Where were you when Nick Price withdrew from the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, Indiana? John Daly was driving to a nearby hotel and when he arrived in the middle of the night he got the news of his promotion from ninth reserve to the last man in the field of golf's final Major of the year.

He snatched a few hours' sleep and when he stepped on to the first tee the following morning he saw the Crooked Stick course for the first time.

It was Daly's first year on the PGA Tour and, in the circumstances, his expectations were not high. Four days later, he was a Major champion and golf had found itself a new everyman: a big-swinging, hard-partying, blue-collar hero.

Fast forward 20 years and Daly is still around in the professional game, even if his career trajectory has been downward for most of the last decade. He followed that win at Crooked Stick with another Major championship victory at St Andrews in 1995, but, even so, he will be remembered as much for his self-destructive instincts as for his golfing talents, neither of which are insignificant.

Weight problems, drinking problems, money problems and women problems. Daly has had them all, a living, breathing embodiment of the country music laments that he so loves. The destructive powers of his lifestyle are obvious in his appearance -- he looks 10 years older than his 45 years -- and on his place in the golfing firmament.

"I've been up and down, up and down. And that's how life is," he says. "But I keep coming back. I've had troubles in my career, but the fans can relate. I don't have any skeletons in my closet. One thing I can say about my life is that I wake up every morning and don't have to worry about whether anybody is going to find something out about me."

That must be small consolation as he watched the best players in the world gather in Akron, Ohio, for the Bridgestone Invitational -- all of them richer and many of them less talented than he. Daly, meanwhile, found himself 2,000 miles to the west getting ready to compete in the Reno-Tahoe Open, one of the less illustrious events on the PGA Tour calendar. His spirits were buoyed by a sixth-place finish at last month's Canadian Open, his first top-10 in the US for almost six years.

"I feel good," he says on the eve of the first round. "I just need to continue what I'm doing and keep believing. Hopefully it's going to happen. I'm working hard on my game. I'm doing everything I need to do to get the confidence to win. It's hard because I've got to get in contention more and more and more. And I just haven't been there in so long."

By Friday night he was packing his bags and heading east after another missed cut. Atlanta, the site of this week's PGA Championship, was calling. And big John, by virtue of that famous victory 20 years ago, will be in the field as a past champion. Daly can still shift his ball out there, as they say in the trade, but in every other respect the contemporary game and those who thrive in it have passed him by.

Atlanta Athletic Club will, in all likelihood, produce a predictable winner. Such is the way of modern golf, the increasing gulf between the best and the rest grows with every passing year. Better conditions and better competition at golf's highest level, where we now have a world tour in all but name, make it almost impossible for a John Daly-like figure to come from nowhere and win a Major championship.

Better instead to reel off the usual suspects in the search to find a winner, and that means the likes of Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnston and Adam Scott, high-ball hitters with games perfectly suited to the clammy heat and the long, narrow confines of Atlanta. Watch out, too, for Tiger Woods.

As for Daly, he will be there to make up the numbers and give the galleries a thrill or two before reality arrives and reminds them, and him, of his diminished place in the game. A two-time Major champion and a lost soul. There is no shame in that, though it surely is a pity.

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