August 23, 2009

Daly vs. Daly

John Daly continues to battle his issues, and he's running out of time

John Daly's face -- which has retained an engaging impishness through all his troubles -- seems bigger now that the rest of him has gotten smaller. So when it turned dull, slack and inward during the second round of the Buick Open near Flint, Mich., the effect was that much more disquieting. As he'd alternately slashed and stabbed his way to a second-round 88, Daly's brightly patterned "shagadelic" pants couldn't distract from the joylessness of his silent seething or, for that matter, the prisoner-like trudge expected of a man who had lost 80 pounds in five months. It was the second-highest score of a career in which he has shot 80 or worse 54 times (he had 89 last year at Royal Birkdale), this time with a final nine of 51. Daly seemed to go especially numb after making a quintuple-bogey 10 on his 10th hole, and by the time he'd closed with a quad and double, so had his fans.

Even with his more svelte profile, there is no way to watch Daly without lamenting all the drama and resulting waste of energy from the previous two decades. Just the scope of the saga, and the sadness on his face, make him seem older than his still golf-young 43 years. Rick Smith, Daly's swing coach for the last year, is left to confront the full measure of the challenge before him. "That was amazing," he said slowly after walking all 18 holes. "I had heard about this kind of thing with John but never really seen it. I needed to see that."

Daly sounded as if something within had broken. "I don't have the feel I used to have," he told the Associated Press. "I can't control my hands like I used to. I have no clue where it's going. I just don't have any feel, and it scares me. This is the most down I've ever been with my golf game."

A few days later, after the emotion had subsided, Daly concluded that the 88 had been the inevitable result of hitting a physical and psychological wall. He had competed 12 of 14 weeks, including the last six weeks in a row, playing in eight European countries and crossing the Atlantic three times.

"The most I've ever been able to really do well is about four or five in a row," Daly says. "But I've never been able to push six or seven weeks."

Daly tried only because more than at any time in his career, he has got to play well and make money. He no longer commands multimillion-dollar guaranteed contracts with equipment companies and other endorsers. He's admittedly broke, and the specter of bankruptcy looms -- brought on by debt, expenses that include separate $10,000-a-month payments to two ex-wives, and an ongoing divorce from his fourth wife.

Nonexempt on the PGA Tour since losing his card in 2006, Daly is playing on sponsor exemptions, with a sense of desperation.

"It's a lot of pressure," he says. "Because now when I play, you know, I think about the money. Used to not have to. Now I do, and that's tough. It's like every shot, it means something. More than what it used to."

Before the Buick, it appeared Daly was as close to being on the right track as he had been in years. The catalyst was a six-month suspension from the PGA Tour beginning last December. In late October, he had been found inebriated outside a Hooters in Winston-Salem, N.C. After surgery to shrink his stomach, and renewing his commitment to his game, Daly tied for second in Italy in May. More impressive was his shotmaking in the British Open. There was no doubt his loss of bulk allowed him to move through the ball with more speed and in better position.

Flint might prove to be where Daly met his end as a relevant player, but there's history to support that it portends positively. For all of Daly's misadventures, including the very public divorces, gambling disasters, three trips to rehab (though he has never acknowledged that he is an alcoholic) and suspensions, he also has two majors: the 1991 PGA and the 1995 British Open. Each came after a period in which his game and life were in turmoil, and so did the last of his five official victories, in 2004.

"That's John's nature," says his longtime caddie, Peter Van Der Riet. "The farther he gets down, the harder he comes up. It's too bad that's what he needs, but once he decides to beat these guys again, he gets that glint, and he's gotten it again."

The glint also comes with some otherworldly talent, at least for hitting a golf ball about as purely as it can be hit. Although Daly has never been better than 23rd in the world (after the Buick he was 428th), his ability ranks much higher among his peers. Daly is fond of Tiger Woods' reply after being asked why he was going to the gym yet again: "If I had your talent, John, I wouldn't have to work out."

It's a view partially verified by Daly's latest "numbers": His tournament swing speed of 121.49 miles per hour is third on the PGA Tour, behind only Woods and Bubba Watson, and Daly's 179.32 mph ball speed trails only Woods, Watson and J.B. Holmes. The rest must be trusted to trained eyes. "He can be hard to pull a club for in the wind," says Van Der Riet, "because he compresses the ball so well that some-times the wind doesn't touch it." Smith marvels at how Daly is able to reach such a stable impact position with what has remained the longest backswing in the game. "He's got such great legs and hips," says Smith. "From three-quarters back to three-quarters through, he's as good as anybody." For all its violence, up close Daly's action is smooth and pleasing, recalling the "drowsy beauty" that Bernard Darwin ascribed to the swing of Bobby Jones.

Those are the positives, counterbalanced by some big negatives. One is the way Daly's mercurial mood-swings on the course can ruin his sublime mechanics.

The main threat to whether Daly can win again is the putter. Always streaky on the greens, Daly's long and handsy stroke has become a liability as greens get faster and the fearlessness of his youth becomes a memory. The three-foot putt he missed on the second hole of a playoff to lose to Woods in 2005 has proved to be a harbinger. After finishing 21st and 42nd on the money list in 2004 and 2005, Daly hasn't been better than 188th since.

Smith says that Daly should take a radical approach. "A lot has happened to John through the years, and the stroke he's got isn't going to hold up under heat," says Smith. "I've seen enough, and John's got to either go to the belly, left-hand low, the claw or the long putter. He's got to quiet his hands."

Daly thinks he can improve while retaining a conventional putter and grip. "The most important thing about the putting is, I'm going to use my shoulders," he says. "Rick and I were on the putting green with Tiger before the first two rounds at the Buick, and he pointed out how Tiger uses his shoulders to putt with more than his hands. I've always been a hands player with my putter, but there's a better way."

Days after his 88, Daly had laser eye surgery in the hopes it will help him better see his putting line. It's evident that he is more open to change than ever, a belated realization that perhaps his "own damn way" -- to borrow from the title of his recent instruction book -- doesn't work so well. "It's not one last chance," says Anna Cladakis, a longtime acquaintance who became his girlfriend and traveling companion this year. "But it's time to apply himself. To make the most of the years you have left."

Daly is proud of his weight loss, from what he says was a high of 286 on his 5-foot-11 frame to 205 at the Buick. (His goal is 190.) A silicone band was placed around the upper portion of his stomach, limiting how much he can eat, and he says it also curtails his intake of beer to an occasional sip. He is wearing his Loud-mouth brand pants in a size-36 waist, down from 44.

In his fervor to lose weight, Daly might have been undone by his tendency to go to extremes. Instead of taking his recommended 1,200 calories a day, he cut his intake to a mere 600. It was reminiscent of his freshman year at Arkansas, when Daly starved himself on a diet of cigarettes, popcorn and whiskey to go from 235 pounds to 170 before ending up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning.

"All his habits, all his decisions, they just caught up to him," says Smith. "I mean, no food, no rest, nicotine and caffeine [Daly has estimated he drinks more than 7,000 Diet Cokes a year, about 20 a day], it left him with no energy, shaky, edgy."

Daly's earnings

At Turnberry, Golf Channel producer and friend Al Pollock stayed in the same house with Daly and cooked breakfast for him every day. "I made sure he ate it, and he played well over four days," said Pollock. "But he's usually on his own, and from what I can tell, he barely eats." Not surprisingly, Daly disagrees that his diet is a problem. "It's got nothing to do with food," he says. "I'm doing the right thing."

Things began to unravel after Daly flew from Scotland to play at the RBC Canadian Open. His first round was a slow-play hater's nightmare, as a rain delay elongated his day from early morning to sundown. He shot 77 to almost guarantee he would miss the cut. Daly, who played on a sponsor's invitation and can't afford to worsen his reputation for withdrawing, completed a second-round 72, not finishing until late Saturday.

Nearing exhaustion, he arrived at the Buick on Sunday to throw out the first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game; on Tuesday he recorded a song he had written -- with the refrain "I'm a lost soul, I am" -- at the studio of Kid Rock; and Wednesday he took part in a junior clinic. By Thursday he was running on fumes, shooting a 76 that left him two spots out of last place. Rather than rest, at 4 a.m. he was watching television in the house he shared with Smith. The 88 came the next day, including two tee shots out-of-bounds on his way to a 10. Daly later said "I tried my ass off" on every shot, but he's far from doing everything he can.

Smith has the task that so many others have abandoned: trying to change Daly. His predecessor in the role, Butch Harmon, quit in March 2008, saying of Daly, "The most important thing in his life is getting drunk." Smith, who has worked with Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus, welcomes the assignment. "People have asked, 'Why are you doing this?' " says Smith. "Well, I've been fortunate to work with so many great players, I felt I could impart some of those things to John."

After Flint, Smith knows that Daly is not like his other players. "I told him, 'I don't care about the 88; I care about the future, and you still have one. But you've got to make better decisions.'

"He was pretty down, saying he wasn't sure if he had it anymore. I told him, 'I don't want to hear that. What are you going to do if you don't play golf?' He said, 'I can do announcing. I talked to Zinger [Paul Azinger], and he said it's the greatest job in the world.' I said, 'John, TV is hard. You have to get up early, go to production meetings, prepare. That's a job. That's work. That's not what you want.' I was pretty firm with him. This is not the time to be mentally soft. Great players grind. What John thinks are bad breaks, that's just golf. Really, that's just life."

After hearing of Daly's debacle at the Buick, Mark Calcavecchia sounded the tour's brutal code of self-determination. "First, John was obese and a mess, and now he's thinner but still a mess," says Calcavecchia, a Daly friend. "He's the only one who can change that. It's lonely out here when you're struggling, because nobody wants to be around bad energy. That old saying about how half the players don't care what you shot, and the other half wish it was higher? That's accurate. We're all on our own."

Daly has already had more reckonings than any 10 average humans, but this one is the most serious yet. He sounds every bit the lost soul when he says, "Everything is different." Much will have to be if he's ever to be found.