August 8, 2007

Attention Grabber

Despite not having practiced at Southern Hills, John Daly finds his way among the leaders with a 3-under 67

John Daly wasn't great on the greens, but he got the job done.

John Daly wasn't great on the greens, but he got the job done.

TULSA, Okla. -- John Daly commands attention whether his act is satirical splendor or comic relief. Sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference.

Big John grabbed the spotlight early in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills with an opening-round 67 forged on diet colas and cigarettes to combat the sweltering heat (index of 105 degrees) and a full attack mode that defied the odds. And he did it without a single practice round at the course.

"I haven't played this course since '94," Daly said Thursday after his round. "I didn't play a practice round this week because it was too hot."

Instead, Daly's physical and mental preparation consisted of two days of playing the slots at the nearby Cherokee Casino. Oh yeah, he also played a practice round at the casino's course -- hardly a true simulation of conditions at Southern Hills but effective nonetheless for the man who defines unconventionality on tour.

"I went out just in a cart," he said. "They gave me the course from 10 to 1 yesterday. I got a lot of practicing in and it was probably the best practice I did."

No kidding. A duck hook in practice revealed a swing flaw that would prove penal if he took it to Southern Hills. He was taking the club back too far inside. OK, easy fix. Take it more outside. He had enough confidence in the driver to hit it on nearly every par 4 and par 5 Thursday.

Although Daly hit just six fairways, his driver left him with short irons out of the hide-and-seek Bermuda rough. It was vintage Vijay Singh strategy of survival of the longest driver.

Daly also decided to actually start bending over to read putts, slowing down his pre-putt routine a notch or two and concentrating on a more consistent pace. The 30 putts of round one weren't a benchmark but they were an improvement over a recent trend. Besides, he hit 14 or 18 greens and never broke a sweat over a par-save.

As has always been the case with Daly's box-of-chocolates career, there were no positive signs coming in. Playing on sponsor exemptions this year, he had made just five cuts in 17 tournaments and ranked a lowly 173rd in FedEx Cup points. He had an area code world ranking of 423 and falling.

This is the same John Daly who burst from the starting blocks in the first round of the British Open at Carnoustie a few weeks ago. Five-under at one point, Daly slipped off the leaderboard faster than you could say Jean Van de Velde. That he missed the cut the next day was hardly a shock.

"I wasn't down on myself at the British," Daly insisted. "I played good golf. That was one hell of a golf course. Those last few finishing holes, I think they were the hardest in golf. I hated to miss the cut, but just build on something."

Daly has reclaimed his career from the ashes so many times we have come to expect it. This time, though, he's making no excuses. All he wants is a little confidence. He'll keep his head down, his emotions sedated with nicotine and his feet moving forward -- even up the most vertical terrain and in the most stifling heat he's faced since he was a kid growing up in Arkansas, a 2-hour drive away.

"There was odds with all the caddies and players this week who would fall first, me or my caddie," Daly said. "So we made it. We made 18 holes."

That Daly is still standing and in contention in another major is no laughing matter. He is as resilient as he is humorous. For once, though, he'd like to be taken serious.

"Today was a gift to me," he said. "Hopefully I can continue to do it the rest of the week."