The Best Of Golf Digest

John Daly, Still Afloat

From the archive (August 2001): Life isn’t always easy for the two-time major champ, but it does have its moments
April 20, 2020
John Daly

Harry How

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John Daly will have lived 54 years on April 28 and weighs 215 pounds; it says so in his profile on the PGA Tour Champions website. All things considered, you probably would have bet the under and over respectively on those two stats. He’s been married four times, and as he sings, all his exes have Rolexes. It goes without saying he endorses Loudmouth Golf apparel, the alcoholic beverage Grip It & Sip It, and a retailer named Rock Bottom Golf. His website proudly states he’s the only two-time major champion (1991 PGA and 1995 Open Championship) never to be picked for a Ryder Cup. His favorite charity is a Boys & Girls Club in his hometown of Dardanelle, Ark. Though he plays a full schedule of events on various tours today, he’s probably best known for parking his RV in the Hooters lot during Masters week in Augusta, Ga.

Mark Seal comes from a long line of Texans who mastered the craft of writing about scandals and scoundrels. His profiles have ranged from Oscar Pistorius for Vanity Fair to the serial impostor who posed as a Rockefeller heir now serving 27 years for murder. Mark specializes in long features about hugely successful people for Golf Digest, taking deep dives into complicated subjects like Ely Callaway and the Pete Dye Family. This article appeared first in August 2001, mid-career for John Daly, in what’s been an on- and off-the-wagon life. Time has changed, but John, in many ways, hasn’t.—Jerry Tarde

It’s a rowdy Arkansas midnight when John Daly announces, “Now I’m gonna make an ass outta myself.” But instead of his old instruments of insanity—beer can, whiskey bottle, deck of cards or slot-machine handle—he picks up a guitar. Backed up onstage by a 10-piece band, he belts out Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” not as a dirge but as an announcement of arrival in an exalted state.

The hometown crowd of 200, packed inside a circus tent in Daly’s backyard in Dardanelle, Ark., gives him a hero’s ovation. For while the occasion is Daly’s annual golf tournament and fundraiser for the local Boys & Girls Club, it’s also the celebration of, at least for this moment, a better John.

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For three days, Daly, his fiancee, his parents, his ever-present foursome of Razorback golf buddies and even his golf course’s snack-bar attendants have testified to Daly’s 10-month sobriety and his absolute dedication to making a comeback in golf. But tonight has been the test: 25 cases of beer, 12 cases of booze, several cases of wine and live entertainment by three avid golfer honky-tonkers—Mickey Gilley, Johnny Lee and Moe Bandy—drawling songs of cheatin’ women, demon booze and wasted years, once the themes of John Daly’s unpredictable life.

But even as midnight stretches into the early morning, Daly doesn’t reach for anything stronger than Diet Coke, Marlboros, handshakes and bear hugs.

Ten years after his out-of-nowhere PGA Championship victory at Crooked Stick Golf Club, after which he led the golf world on a decade-long police chase that included whiskey overdoses, three trips to rehab centers, two suicide attempts, his second and third divorces, trashed hotel rooms and tour suspensions, John Daly, at 35, has come to another crossroads.

HOME IN DARDANALE

“Welcome to Redneck Country,” says Daly. Shoes untied, Marlboro dangling from his mouth, he stands on the practice green of the Bay Ridge Boat & Golf Club, which borders his home in Dardanelle, where many locals call him “Big-un.” A popcorn/peanut-butter-cracker/”forgettin’ to eat” diet has left him 50 pounds lighter than almost two years ago, when he drove away from his last rehab. That drive cost him his $3-million-a-year deal with Callaway Golf, which also had paid off $1.7 million in gambling debts and stipulated that he attend AA meetings and refrain from gambling.

“Alcohol is something you abuse because you’re [ticked] off at something,” he says. “Or somebody is bringing you down. That’s not an excuse to drink, but that’s what people drink for. When they get mad, they say, ‘Well, I’ll just go get drunk and to hell with her or this or that.’ I don’t have to do that anymore.”

He’s still trying to analyze the sources of his anger, but this much he knows for sure: It’s mostly about golf. “It used to be that when I played really bad, I would get drunk,” he says. “I’m such a hell of a competitor.”

A chronicle of Daly’s misadventures in alcohol seems to confirm his theory: Every drunken escapade has been preceded by an episode of what he calls “horrible golf.”

Before continuing the self-analysis, Daly delivers the headline:

“I think it’s been 10 months since I’ve had a beer,” he says.

I stare him in the eye, searching for signs of hypocrisy or hoax. Because this is golf’s greatest serial self-abuser, a complicated case study yet to be successfully analyzed. At one moment, he tells me, “I don’t think I’m an alcoholic.” The next minute, he says he suffers from “cross addictions,” explaining, “When I wasn’t’ drinking I needed that edge—and I took it out on gambling.” He presently says he has no desire to drink, but then adds, “I’m not going to say I’m never going to drink again.”

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But though he has given up drinking for now, he still gambles. “I’ve got to do something,” he says. Only now, he has a limit—25 or 30 grand—and he no longer signs half-million-dollar markers.

“I’m 35 years old. I’ve learned an awful lot,” Daly says. “What I’ve told everybody is, ‘I’m a late maturer.’ I still get [mad] on the golf course, like anybody else would. I just don’t do any stupid stuff anymore. What I’m really trying to work on is not to rush when things aren’t going good. I’m still working on it.”

His golf buddies, most of whom live around the course, circle their carts around him, offering support. Daly has given them golf clubs, Rolex watches, golf tips.

“There’s nobody in the United States who’s got a bigger heart than John,” says Steve Whorton, who once worked as Daly’s caddie.

It’s obvious that he’s rededicating himself to the game,” says Jamey Young, a local UPS driver.

“He’s grown up,” says Greg Whorton, Steve’s brother and an electrician at the local power plant. “I swear to the good Lord, he’s high on life. He’s just a changed man. We didn’t know y’all were comin’, so it’s not like we rehearsed this.”

“John just needs to start believin’,” says Jamey. “Because when he does … ”

“He’s gonna put the hurtin’ on somebody,” says Greg.

UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

One of the keys to Daly’s rebirth is beneath his feet: the unconditional love of his hometown of Dardanelle (pop, 3,909), the county seat of Yell County, Ark., whose chief industries are Tyson chicken processing, the Arkansas Nuclear One power plant, where Daly’s daddy earned his paychecks, and John Daly Enterprises—the golfer, the brand and the man.

“John’s got friends all over the world, but people here leave him alone,” says his father, Jim Daly. “Hell, they knew him when he was a little kid out here slapping balls around.” Across the Arkansas River, where the nuclear plant constantly belches steam, through the little town whose fast-food franchises fed the future golf champion, past the church whose sign offers “Free Trip to Heaven. Details Inside!” and the Dardanelle Funeral Home, which more than once could have prefabricated his tombstone, John Daly is learning to love himself.

Two years ago, he drove back home from the dead, he insists, a “damned lab rat,” hopped up on pills. He stresses that he loves “Mr. C,” Ely Callaway, whom he considers his second father, and believes that Callaway had his best interests at heart. He recently wrote Mr. C a letter wishing him a rapid recovery from surgery that revealed a pancreatic tumor. What Daly didn’t love was that his deal with Callaway Golf required what he calls a surrender to Team Daly, which included two Callaway-hired psychologists working to tame the demons roiling in John Daly’s soul.

“Lithium, Prozac, Xanax, Paxil . . . I was on everything that you can think of,” he says. “Everybody was saying I was manic-depressive . . . I was bloated. I was tired. I didn’t want to do anything. I had headaches, diarrhea, no energy. You don’t want to have sex. You’re just bored. There are no emotions in your life at all.”

Callaway Golf’s Larry Dorman maintains that the company made no insistence that Daly take drugs. “A company cannot prescribe medication,” say Dorman. “We wanted to do whatever it took for John to get healthy. He had his own doctors who did prescribe medication for him. However, those medications were prescribed by doctors, not by Callaway Golf. The only things we asked John to do specifically were to attend AA meetings and to avoid gambling.”

Daly says his weight ballooned to 260-plus, and the side effects from the medicine were worse than any DTs (alcohol withdrawal’s delirium tremens) he suffered with booze, inducing shakes, chills and random craziness. At one tournament, he says, he had either a seizure or a nervous breakdown, possibly both. “I just got to the point where I said, ‘Uh-uh. I ain’t doin’ this no more.’ ”

Figuring Callaway would drop him anyway, Daly flew to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in September 1999 and says he promptly dropped $150,000 on the slot machines.

“I guess somebody at Caesars must have called Mr. Callaway and told him I was in there gambling,” he says. “He called me. I said, ‘Yeah, I did.’ He said, ‘Well, you know that’s a problem.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir, I do. But I’m not happy with the way things are going. I hate the medication. I feel bad. I haven’t played good for you. I want to win.’ “

His agents were summoned; a meeting was called. “I’m off the medication,” Daly announced. A deal was struck: If Daly would go back to rehab, he could stay onboard. “I go to this rehab somewhere in San Diego, I don’t even know where it was,” he says. “Shanae [his fiancee, Shanae Chandler, now 25] even went. We stayed that night and left the next morning. All the people there were bragging how they could get cocaine in there and booze . . . I said, ‘I’m outta here.’ “

Driving away from his $3 million deal, and once again saddled with a portion of his gambling debts, Daly vowed to do things His Way.

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And His Way, to employ his second-favorite verb, sucked. “Last year, he had nobody telling him he couldn’t do anything,” says his best friend since first grade, Donnie Crabtree, who until recently toured with and worked for Daly. “So he gambled and he drank and … it was the worst year of his career. Probably because he focused more on those things than he did on golf. I think there was a part of John that always felt like he was being constricted by being told, ‘You can’t drink. You can’t gamble,’ and that always kept him from living his life. He thought that’s what made him unhappy and contributed to him not having more success with the golf. Then last year he got to do all those things—there was no one telling him he couldn’t—and the golf was even worse.”

He could live a sweet life on his endorsements alone. Daly points out his sponsors by their logos on his golf shirt. They include three companies “that picked me up when nobody cared.” These include SoBe beverages (“The base salary the first year was $150,000, and they give me $2,500 every time I make a cut in a tournament”); Dancing Rabbit Golf Club in Philadelphia, Miss. (“I represent their two Fazio golf courses”); and Mark Christopher Auto Center (“Do a commercial. Drive their cars. I’ve always been a Chevy guy, so it was a great combination”). There’s also a Titleist contract for shoes, gloves, and balls, and a consulting deal with Hippo golf clubs.

Perhaps the most important logo is on Daly’s left shirt sleeve: “The Lion,” which was his high school nickname, now the logo for John Daly Enterprises. The company is planning an assault on Daly’s massive blue-collar, Joe Six Pack constituency. Daly already has put his lion logo on lighters, which have given him a way to finally beat the casinos: He sells the lighters at a profit in casino gift shops. Next up will be John Daly Lion “Cub Clubs” for kids, intended for sale at discount chains like Wal-Mart. There’s also an apparel line built around “Team Lion.”

And The Lion yearns to roar. “It pays the bills, and I have great relationships with all these people, but I want to win for them,” Daly says of his endorsements. “These are sponsors who came along when nothing was going right, and it would be just awesome to repay them with a win.”

Of course, Daly hasn’t won a golf tournament since the 1995 British Open, and until the first half of this year, his game had been in the gutter. Although he led the tour in driving distance last year (301.4 yards), he dropped to 188th on the money list, earning $115,460 and missing seven cuts in a row. He became the tour’s Forgotten Man, as he called himself in a piece for Sports Illustrated in March of this year. “A lot of the players wanted me to play in their tournaments when things were going great,” he says on the golf course. “Now I can’t get invited to s----.”

Although Tiger has told Daly he would be invited to his tournament if Daly wins this year, the rest of the pros have kept their distance. “I realize now I was there to sell tickets, and it wasn’t friendship,” Daly says. What hurts most is being left off the year-end “fluff stuff,” like the Wendy’s Three-Tour Challenge. “I love Wendy’s,” he says. “I eat there all the time.”

'THUNDER AND LIGHTNING’

Daly even feels forgotten by the press. “I’m the bad boy of golf,” he says. “The media wants to keep that. Now that everything is going great, there’s really nothing anybody writes anymore.”

But he’s still a headline. Because last year, something incredible happened.

“It was Aug, 28, 2000,” says Shanae.

“He breathed a great, big sigh,” says Dardanelle buddy Greg Whorton.

“An epiphany,” says Shanae. “You know, thunder and lightning.”

We’ll get to that pivotal moment soon enough. But for now, on the golf course, Daly is focused on the end result. “Just going down the last three holes winning, I can just picture how loud it’s going to be,” he says. “I don’t care what tournament it is. It’s just going to be the greatest win I’ve ever had.”

Climbing out of his golf cart, he tees it up. Even lean and sober, he remains a finger in the face of the gentlemanly game. “Sometimes, I’m glad I did them all,” he says of his many infamous golf-course tantrums and tirades: picking up balls when they didn’t roll his way, playing drunk and getting caught—all of which, he says, are recognizable actions to golf’s unwashed and unprofessional majority. “Everybody tells me, ‘I would have done the same damn thing!’” he says.

He drags deeply on a Marlboro, unwinds his almost double-jointed overswing and watches the ball disappear. “I love it when you talk dirty to me,” he says to himself.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

At 9 a.m. on a Friday, Daly’s dad, Jim, who, having worked at 11 different nuclear power plants, is accustomed to handling potentially catastrophic power under pressure, walks through the gate that separates his back yard from John’s. He crosses his son’s driveway, studded with tiny silver University of Arkansas Razorbacks, passes the pool, and steps inside the dark house.

“Anybody up over here?” Jim Daly hollers into the silence.

“John!” his daddy calls out. “Breakfast is ready! You up?”

Not even a mumble comes from the bedroom John shares with Shanae. We walk back across the back yards and begin breakfast, which has become a ritual for visitors, centered around Daly’s third addiction: his mama’s hot biscuits and chocolate gravy. Pictures of John hugging his daughters, Shynah, 9, and Sierra, 6, are scattered around the kitchen. Daly says he sees his daughters, by separate wives, each of whom he pays $10,000 a month in alimony, “whenever I get a chance,” which is at least once a month.

GOING NUCLEAR

“I’ve been down inside that thing, even the hot areas,” John’s dad is reassuring me about the safety of the nearby nuclear power plant.

“They have backups systems after backup systems,” Jim Daly says. “You’ll get more radiation sittin’ on a rock fishin’ than you do at that power plant.”

He’s equally confident about the safety of the nuclear reactor next door.

“When he left Callaway, there was too much pressure,” Jim says. “They had what they called Team Daly, and they had weight-lifting trainers. They had a doctor to keep him on drugs. Must’ve been a dozen of them. All to straighten out John. And you ain’t gonna straighten out John until he’s ready to straighten out.”

Jim Daly takes a bite of biscuit. “I haven’t seen him drinking anything,” he says.

“Actually since December,” says Mama Lou from the kitchen.

The most important thing to Daly’s parents is that their son is Back Home. “When you get out on the road, there are a lot of sophisticated people,” Jim Daly says, “and I’m sure it was good intentions when they told John, ‘You gotta go to AA every day. You gotta take Prozac every day.’ It’s just too much pressure.

“And they’re controllin’ your life!” he continues. “Here’s a guy who really doesn’t have any problems, except that he likes to drink. Have him on all this crap! OK, John had a few drinks and he hit some golf balls maybe where he shouldn’t. Because of that, they put him in rehab? Reminds me of pipe fitters I used to work with. Whenever they wanted a vacation, they’d say, ‘I got a problem,’ and they’d send ’em to rehab.”

Suddenly, the object of their attention saunters into the kitchen, Diet Coke in one hand, cellphone in the other, trailed by Greg Whorton. Mama Lou brings him his biscuits, over which he liberally spoons chocolate gravy, which has the consistency of hot chocolate pudding.

“He was up until 10 last night, hittin’ balls,” Greg reports. “Hundreds of ’em!”

“I needed this,” Daly says of his mama’s biscuits and gravy.

Having overheard the conversation, he jumps right in. “Taking lithium was probably the last straw,” he says. “I started throwin’ up like crazy. That was it for me.”

“And they were wanting to increase the dose!” says Daddy Jim.

“That stuff is not to be fooled around with,” says Mama Lou.

“Psychology is a very inexact science,” says Greg.

Daly didn’t realize that the team designed to tame him actually had a name.

“Team Daly?” he mumbles through a mouthful of biscuit. “Really?”

“You know,” says Dad, “they even had shirts that said “Team Daly.’ “

“Hell, I didn’t get one,” says Daly.

THE NATURAL

In the fourth step of the 12 steps to recovery, the addict is asked to give a “fearless moral inventory,” an honest accounting of all his or her screw-ups. Back on the golf course, Daly drives his golf cart to an unending stream of Marlboros (a pack and a half a day), Diet Cokes (a dozen a day) and ‘70s rock roaring from the cart’s powerful speakers. On these greens, he stares down his failures through his Oakley shades unflinchingly, although he hasn’t yet found the grace to accept them as his responsibility alone. “I see everything clearly,” he says. “It’s been a rocky road. It’s been a four-wheel drive, baby.”

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He was a natural at sports, a self-taught prodigy. At 4, he was hitting 8-irons in his front yard; at 5, he was wading for balls in the seventh-hole pond at Bay Ridge. When he turned 6 in 1972, Daly’s dad bought his son a $50 used set of McGregors. “I asked John, ‘You want me to cut these off?’ “ remembers Jim Daly. “But John said, ‘No.’

“He’d bring that club behind his back and would have to lift up to get it around, and it generated a pretty good swing,” says Jim Daly.

John Daly’s “Grip It and Rip It” overswing was born.

When he was 13, Daly won the adult club championship at Lake of the Woods in Virginia. “They wouldn’t give me the trophy and then changed the rules so no juniors could play,” he says.

Daly was a rabid Arkansas Razorbacks fan. He and Donnie Crabtree would announce mock games, in which Daly or Crabtree always caught the football for a touchdown with seconds left on the clock against Texas. But when Daly arrived at the University of Arkansas in 1984, weighing 235 pounds, he was the most promising recruit on the Razorbacks golf team.

“Steve Loy was our coach, and he was so hard on me,” Daly remembers. “I mean, I couldn’t play unless I lost 60 pounds for him. He just hated me.”

Daly stares at the distant pines.

“Loy made me hate myself,” he says.

“He said, ‘You’re gonna lose 60 pounds if you’re going to play for me.’ I was working on the golf course for him, putting the signs up and stuff, doing everything. I felt like I was working for him instead of playing for him. My whole freshman year, he never let me play.”

Daly was raised on a deep-fried Southern diet whose main food groups included burgers, French fries, soft drinks, Marlboros, biscuits and his dad’s drink of choice, Jack Daniels. Loy put him on a strict diet of salads, no dressing, and weighed him in daily. “I said, ‘If I’m going to have to eat rabbit food, I might as well just drink,’ “ Daly remembers. He says he lost 65 pounds in three months using Jack Daniels as an appetite inhibitor. No ice, no Coke, straight out of the bottle. “A fifth a day,” says Daly.

He grins. “I didn’t eat for three days, probably went through four fifths of Jack and finally collapsed,” he says. “Loy found out when I got put in Washington Hospital up at Fayetteville.”

It was his first whisky overdose.

During a qualifying round for a tournament his freshman year, Daly hit a bad shot out of a bunker, missed the cut, and threw his sand wedge at his bag in disgust. “Loy came up with that club and hit me right where that mark is at,” Daly says, showing the scar he still carries on his leg.

Loy, now president and CEO of Gaylord Sports Management, whose clients include Phil Mickelson, says only: “I wish John Daly all the best and want him to succeed.”

Daly dropped out of Arkansas as a junior and turned pro in 1987. His mother loaned him $300 for the Missouri Open, his first professional tournament. He won $6,300. “I won $40,000 before tour school,” he says.

But he still carried the hate. “Oh, the mini-tours, I played the whole thing drunk,” he says. “Nobody knew. I’d ride around with my ice in the cart and Jack Daniels in the cart.”

He was playing a tournament in Swaziland, South Africa, in February 1990, around the time his divorce from his first wife, Dale, became final. He had met her at a tournament in her hometown of Blytheville, Ark. “When we signed the paper to get married, she was like, ‘You ain’t gettin’ no more sex.’ “

One night that week in South Africa, Daly sank deep into the Jack. “I was trying to hit my fist through the TV, trying to break it,” he says. “I fractured my whole right hand.” Then he trashed the hotel room, rock-star style. When the walls resembled Swiss cheese, he turned to his caddie and announced, “I think I’ll just win this damned tournament.” He went on to win with a fractured hand. “After the hotel room was paid off,” he says, I broke about even.”

He returned to the U.S. after finishing fourth in the South African tour’s Order of Merit. But the hate still rode shotgun. In May 1990, he and some buddies were at a pro-am party in Maine. “My method of drinking at that time was triple Jack Daniels, no ice, no Coke,” he says. He was ordering them three at a time, until a bartender tried to slap a one-drink-at-a-time minimum on him.

Daly re-enacts the scene.

“The lady says, ‘Look we can only serve you one.’ I said, ‘OK, serve it.’ So right when I sat down, I downed it and said, ‘OK, can I have another, please?’ This happened like seven times.”

He had been drinking for hours when a buddy decided it was time to drive Daly back to the hotel. “And he sees all this white stuff coming out of my mouth.” Daly awoke in the intensive-care unit.

His second overdose. “And the next day I went out and played the second round and almost made the cut,” he grins.

He was 25. He might have remained just another unrequited rebel, drinking himself to death through a clenched-toothed grin. But then he got his shot: the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick near Indianapolis. He learned he made the field as an alternate the day before the tournament, drove all night to the course in Carmel, Ind., and won without a practice round. That night, he and Crabtree sat in the locker room studded with the nameplates of the greats and cried. The payday was $230,000; lucrative sponsorship deals were struck.

“When you’re successful early, you’ve got people thrown’ money at you,” says Daly’s father. “Millions! John never had any money. It’ll make you crazy!”

Which John confirms: “When you give me money, I’m going to spend it.”

Fearful of flying, he bought an American Eagle tour bus (he now tours in a 2001 Chevy Suburban), and the John Daly show hit the road.

He had met his second wife, Bettye Fulford, on the Hogan Tour in Macon, Ga. “It was sort of a sexual thing at first sight,” he says.

She told him she was 31. According to reports, she was actually 39, married, soon to be divorced, with a teenage son.

“What was so sad was that she actually got pregnant by me when she was still married,” Daly says. She had Daly served with palimony-suit papers during a practice round at the Masters. By then, Daly had already met the woman who would become his third wife, Paulette Dean, a blonde Chrysler Girl at the Bob Hope tournament. But he married Bettye in May 1992. Their daughter, Shynah, was born a month later.

That same month, Daly was forced off a New York-bound plane in Denver, one of his rare flights, after a confrontation with a flight attendant. “Aw, that was blown out of proportion,” he says. “My caddie was drunk, and the stewardess wasn’t being very nice.”

Later that year, Daly and Bettye celebrated the Christmas season with a cocktail party for a dozen friends in their home outside Denver. The couple had an argument, and Daly went nuclear. “Contrary to what most people might think by looking at him, John’s a very non-confrontational person,” says Crabtree. “That’s why you’ve seen the stories about hotel rooms and whatever. He takes it out on things.”

“I hit walls, everything,” Daly remembers. “I was so mad at her, but I never touched her.”

AT THE TOP OF A CLIFF

Daly drove all night back to Dardanelle. Driving back to Colorado a day later at his wife’s urging to celebrate their baby’s first Christmas, Daly was arrested for domestic violence. Back in Dardanelle, Crabtree was opening Christmas presents when he heard an ESPN report about Daly’s arrest for allegedly hitting his wife. That same night, Crabtree’s phone rang.

“I never told anybody, but he called me that night, very distraught, because it had been all over TV that he’d hit his wife, and that had not happened,” says Crabtree. “He said he was at the top of a cliff somewhere outside of Denver and he was gonna drive off. I stayed on the phone with him for probably 30 minutes. I said, ‘Plenty of people there that night saw that you didn’t hit her—we can get over that. The tour wants you to go to rehab—you can take care of that. You’ve got a 6-month-old daughter—you need to think about that.’ “

Daly checked in for his first rehab, three weeks at Sierra Tucson, followed by a lengthy period of sobriety.

After a plea bargain, Daly pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. But even while sober he remained rowdy, especially after a less than perfect round.

In August 1994, he says he was ambushed at the World Series of Golf in Akron, Ohio, by a couple, whom he later learned were the parents of pro Jeff Roth. “I sign my scorecard and say, ‘What’s y’all’s problem?’ They said, ‘You hit into my son on 14!’ Next thing I know this old man jumps on my back!”

The tour unofficially requested that Daly not continue the season. Earlier that summer, with time on his hands and living in Memphis, he began driving to the new, Vegas-style casinos in Tunica, Miss., where he played blackjack and high-stakes slots.

“After he missed the cut at the FedEx tournament, he and I drove down to Tunica, and he won $40,000 or $50,000,” says Crabtree. “We went back Saturday night, and he won again. He won like three days in a row, like maybe $80,000. It seemed like that was the point he was hooked.”

Daly hadn’t had a drink since he left Sierra Tucson in January 1993. By 1995, he had stunned the world again, winning the British Open at St. Andrews, an achievement he calls “my biggest win.” Then he got complacent, and his golf game rolled downhill. In late summer, 1996, at the Scandinavian Masters in Sweden, he drank two beers. Total. “I guess he felt he was older and could handle it,” says Crabtree, who witnessed the pivotal first brews.

The snowball began rolling. “Drink one beer, and that goes into several beers, and then after a few weeks or a few months it’s a lot of beers, and then it will eventually go to the hard liquor,” says Crabtree. “I’ve never seen him just drink beer and have a problem. It’s when he converts to the hard liquor that he has problems.”

That conversion came at the 1997 Players Championship at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach. His relationship with Paulette, which had been “going great until we got married,” was in trouble. “She really lost interest in me and my career,” he says. On March 27, 1997, after a bad round, Daly decided to get bombed.

Crabtree left him in a Hooters with a couple of tour caddies. “I took the keys to his car so he couldn’t drive,” says Crabtree. Daly was drinking beer, but soon the party moved on to Sloppy Joe’s, and he switched to Seagram’s. Much later, Daly literally fell into the hotel room where Paulette and 22-month-old Sierra were sleeping. “I think they [the media] have blown that story out of proportion,” says Daly. “I fell into the kitchen door, and they said I trashed the room.”

Paulette left with Sierra and called the sheriff’s department, whose officers found Daly unconscious. It took several officers to load him onto a stretcher and take him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with alcohol poisoning. “Fuzzy [Zoeller, who witnessed Daly being loaded onto the stretcher] said I told them to take that cop’s gun and shoot me in the head,” says Daly.

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Ross Kinnaird

It was his third whiskey overdose. Paulette was finished with him. The PGA Tour was, too. They made it plain: get help. “And he wanted it,” says Crabtree, who drove Daly to the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Daly was an outpatient, attending sessions daily while living in a nearby condo. Paulette filed for divorce. And in his second week of treatment, on the day Daly celebrated his 31st birthday, Wilson, his sponsor, dropped him.

Later that day, Daly sped up to the mountaintop between Palm Springs and San Diego. “And I was going to drive that son of a bitch off a cliff,” he says. “For some reason, I called Thomas Henderson [former Dallas Cowboys star and recovering addict], and I called Donnie. I said, ‘I just want to say goodbye. You’ve been my friend since first grade.’ Thank God they had phones in cars.”

Daly drove down the cliff and headed back to Betty Ford, which put him under suicide watch. Back in his condo, Daly calculated his debts. “I said, ‘Holy s----! I’ve got myself in a bind!’ “ he remembers.

He had been paying off his $2.6 million in gambling markers with his Wilson money but still owed $1.7 million. On top of that, he had been paying off IRS taxes, “close to $350,000 or $400,000 a quarter.”

He didn’t think he could win again, but golf saved him. He traveled from Palm Springs to Callaway Golf headquarters in Carlsbad to test the company’s clubs. On his third visit, he met Ely Callaway, who recognized Daly as the personification of his Big Bertha driver.

On May 27, 1997, Daly signed with Callaway.

A MARRIAGE PROPOSAL

One year and four months later, Daly was on the run from rehab, headed toward the slots in Tunica, then driving back home with a 12-pack of beer riding shotgun. The snowball had begun rolling again.

Daly’s fiancee, Shanae, sits on a lounge chair near the pool, which is studded with lion statues. A University of Texas journalism student with a 3.0 grade average, she met Daly in Austin in October 1998. He had gone to bed early when some buddies called and said, “You gotta see this girl!” And he hasn’t stopped looking at her since. “Me and Shanae are like best friends,” says Daly. “I’ve never had that in a relationship.”

Having worked at Mesquite Municipal Golf Course, Shanae knew three things about John Daly: “I knew he had blond hair. I knew he hit the ball farther than anyone else. And I knew he had won two big tournaments, though I didn’t know which ones.”

She smiles, and the sun seems to brighten over Razorback country. “I was so in love,” she says. “I couldn’t stand to be away from him.”

On Aug. 7, 1999, she accepted his marriage proposal atop Dardanelle’s Mount Nebo. Daly presented her with a five-carat marquis diamond ring. No date has been set. One year after the engagement, she says, “A normal person would have [left him},” although, she stresses, she stands by her man.

“When I first met him, he went to bed early, didn’t drink, basically didn’t do the things I considered fun,” she says. “We had this beautiful storybook relationship, never fought. Then things began to change. We were constantly having spats. What changed? Alcohol was introduced into the relationship. When I drink and John drinks, it’s like nitro and glycerin.”

The snowball began rolling downhill 10 months into John and Shanae’s relationship. One beer led to another, then another and another. “From near and far, wherever we are, everybody wants to buy John a drink,” she says. “We’d go out, and people would send over wine. And I was invisible. I felt like I was the most important thing to him when we first met, but then it seemed like he had a lot more to occupy his time. When he was drinking, he certainly had a lot more friends.”

Everybody wants to get drunk with John Daly, to light that Razorback Roman Candle and watch it explode. “I think that was a problem: to try to recover from alcoholism in a public light,” Shanae adds.

In April of last year, according to newspaper reports, a disagreement between the couple at a McDonald’s restaurant in Auburn, Ala., escalated into a dispute involving police. No arrests were made, but according to reports, Shanae told police she and Daly began fighting over who was going to drive home. When police arrived, Daly was throwing clothes out of a van.

“Naw, I don’t want to [talk about] that. That just brings up bad memories for her and me,” says Daly.

Shanae never knew “which John” she was going to get. “I’ve been with a happy one, a sad one, a mad one, a depressed one. Now it [the swing in moods] isn’t so severe. But if you take a professional athlete, and they’re not playing up to their standards and they’re not mad about it, something is wrong. If he was Happy Merry Sunshine after a round of 80, I’d be worried.”

But then on “Aug 28, 2000,” she says, something incredible happened.

“He had an epiphany, out of nowhere,” she continues. “He said, ‘I’m going to live my life straight, take care of business, get my priorities in order and work on my game.’ That was the day that everything changed.”

I press Shanae for more details about the day of fiancee’s sudden enlightenment.

“I’m not talking about it,” she says. “No way. No how. It was a pivotal moment.”

All she will say is this: “It was evening. I don’t know where we were. I just know we weren’t at home. I was unhappy in the relationship. I was unhappy with everything.”

Of course, they were on tour, I think, imagining the classic Daly recipe for nuclear disaster: bad golf, demon brew and unbridled rage resulting in a meltdown. The week before, he missed the cut in Reno, of all places.

But Shanae shakes her head, no.

“If it was a big deal, you would have read about it in the paper,” she says. “Just say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’d kind of had it and he’d kind of had it.”

“It was just a beautiful day,” says Daly, who insists that he was sparked not by a particular incident but merely a profound dedication to change.

“He said, ‘This is the way I’m going to live,’ ” Shanae remembers. “He was going to live his life straight. And if you know John, you would know that he literally is the type of person who can walk in and say, ‘I’m changing my life.’ ”

Daly eventually returned to Yell County, to be nourished by his mama’s chocolate gravy and the unconditional love of friends who care about John Daly for who he is, not for what he can do for them. “I’ve had a lot of moochers in my life,” Daly laments.

He says he quit drinking and began attending sobriety meetings on tour. He began seeing a psychiatrist in Dardanelle. “She just makes me feel good about myself,” he says. “When I’m on the road, I talk to her on the phone.”

He learned to embrace the advice Hollywood Henderson gave him a long time ago. “Thomas told me, ‘It’s none of your business what other people think about you,’ ” he says. “How unbelievable is that?”

He began to once again believe in miracles.

Still, Shanae never says “never” again. “I wish I could, but I can’t. I don’t even know what I’m going to do tomorrow,” she says. “Above what it does to me, I hope he doesn’t go back, for his sake.”

When he missed the cut at the PGA Championship last year in Louisville, Ky., a fan screamed, “We don’t care if you miss the cut, John! We love you no matter what!” Daly returned to his hotel and called Pizza Hut. By the time he had finished the pizza, he had scrawled out a song on the box. On-stage at his fund-raising event this past May, he drawls out the lyrics.

“Hey, Mr. Fan, I’m doin’ the best I can

“Got my eye on the fairway and a driver in my hand*

“Gonna grip it and rip it, that’s what you want me to do

“Wish I could change things, as my eyes swell up with tears

“Haven’t seen my name on top of the leader boards for years.”

Halfway through the song, he breaks down crying.

THE MAKINGS OF A COMEBACK

Late on the night before his fundraising party, Daly fires ball after ball from his 120-yard practice range across the three three-quarter-acre lots that are his back yard. A gallery of barefoot kids huddles at his back, like a scene out of one of those weepy metaphysical golf novels. “We got kids who didn’t even know what golf was until John Daly,” says local director Gene Ring. “I bet 10 of ‘em were playing before John. Now you got about 200 kids followin’ him.”

Daly climbs into his cart and prepares to drive down to his practice green, where hundreds of balls he has hit are clustered in a tight circle. But before he can drive away, he spots something foreign in his front seat: an unopened can of cold beer. “How the hell did this get here?” he asks no one in particular, tossing the can as if it were a rattlesnake. Once the can is safely out of reach, he rolls toward the green.

Through early June, he had risen to 62nd on the money list, earning $429,775, missing only five cuts in 16 events and finishing tied for fifth at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, his former hometown. Daly has rediscovered his game without using a swing coach, preferring instead to work on his own at the practice area behind his home.

“He’s doing a lot of the right stuff,” says sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella, who has worked with Daly in the past and still sees him regularly. “He’s more at peace with himself and happier with his game than I’ve seen him for a long time. I think since he got himself off antidepressant medication—he felt groggy and tired all the time—he’s feeling really good.

“The most important thing is, he’s back to concentrating on each shot,” Rotella says. “I think his whole game is in pretty good shape. Doesn’t mean he’s perfected it. But he has enough energy to actually practice for extended periods and get prepared for tournaments. There was a time when I think guys [pros] were more worried for him, or feeling badly for him, or even feeling sorry for him, which is kind of uncommon when you’re competing. I think there’s a feeling that he can handle competitive golf again.”

Tour veteran Nick Price has noticed dramatic improvements in Daly’s on-course demeanor. “Ten years for us probably seemed like 25 years for him,” says Price. “You always notice if there’s something wrong with someone, it always comes out on the golf course, because there’s high pressure, tension or whatever. My impression is that his off-the-course life is settled now. No one wants, or should I say, expects him to be an angel. John’s got to be John. But you can’t waste that talent. If he can hang in there and do what he’s doing, there’s no doubt he’s going to win again.”

John Cook, a member of the PGA Tour’s policy board, says Daly has “changed big-time, and that’s great to see. We’re all happy for him, because we need him. Besides Tiger, he might be the No. 2 draw,” Cook says. “People are coming to watch him play, not to watch him blow up, and we’re not seeing a bunch of drunks out there wanting to drink with him. I think people are rooting for him as a player and a person.

“I’m probably not the first one to say it, but I don’t think he had good people around him early on,” says Cook. “I think they were ‘yes’ people. The people in his life right now are good to him.”

Still driving golf balls deep into the night, Daly says he is finally conquering his biggest foe: “As long as I don’t beat myself up, as long as I don’t let a bad hole carry over, I’ve got a good chance of winning,” he says. “I’m my own worst enemy, but I’m getting better at not being that.”

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