Is John Daly finding his way back?

John Daly by Keith Allison, on Flickr

Over the winter, a colleague of mine suggested that we start a different kind of golf fantasy game. The idea was simple enough: Get six people together, and do a draft. Trading and dropping players would be allowed, with total money at the end of the year determining the winner. Admittedly, my team has struggled this year, led by my first round pick, Jason Day. This week the stop on the PGA Tour is the last major of the year, the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s famed Ocean Course, and I made a pair of pickups. First, I scooped Alexander Noren, who’s having a tremendous year on the European Tour, and I also grabbed former PGA Championship winner John Daly, who won the 1991 PGA at Crooked Stick as the ninth alternate when Nick Price withdrew.
Now, it’s likely a commentary on the current state of my roster that I resorted to picking up Daly this week, but he’s very quietly put together his best season in years. With his T-5 last week at the Reno-Tahoe Open, Daly picked up his fifth T-20 worldwide this season. From 2006-2011, Daly finished in the top-20 a total of four times. Making things even better for Daly is that if he can put together a couple of solid finishes in the next few weeks, he could find himself inside the top-125 of the PGA Tour Money List, which would give him his tour card for next season. He currently sits about $150,000 behind Rod Pampling for the 125th spot, which would be easily made up with a good finish at Kiawah. Compare his season to this time last year, and Daly has jumped 396 spots in the World Rankings to his current spot of 219. Considering Daly hasn’t had his card since 2006, he definitely has more to play for than the average golfer this week.
Daly is one of the most polarizing figures in sports. Loved by fans and sponsors, he’s one of the biggest draws the PGA Tour has. There are few golfers who move the needle like Daly, but his behaviour on and off the course over the years has been troubling at best and destructive at its worst. The issues with alcohol, gambling, drugs and petulant on-course conduct are well documented, but none of these things have hurt him in the popularity department. It’s this popularity that has allowed Daly to receive more second chances than just about anyone in sports. Unfortunately for him and his fans, his awful play over the last few years has meant that Daly hasn’t been seen often, which seems inconceivable with his level of talent. His combination of prolific driving distance and silky smooth short game has rarely been seen in professional golf, and even now, Daly can do those things as well as almost anyone.
It’s no secret that the PGA Tour has never been the most flexible when it comes to rules infractions. Golf in general has always been about etiquette, and that’s certainly not going to change any time soon, but when Daly was winning and playing well, the PGA Tour had to put up with his transgressions. Outside of his incident at the Australian Open last year, Daly has been on his best behavior recently, and at age 46, he probably realizes he doesn’t have a ton of time left in his golf career to win tournaments. Watching Daly in Reno last week, he did something that we haven’t seen in quite a while. He made an eagle in the third round on Saturday, and as it was dropping in the cup, Daly pumped his fist and had a look of confidence on his face that he used to have when he was golf’s most exciting player. With Kiawah set up at over 7600 yards and the soft conditions due to the rain expected in the area, the course should favor a player of Daly’s skill set. It’s amazing that we’ve gotten to the point with Daly that a win this week would be just as unlikely as his win at Crooked Stick 21 years ago. Back then, no one would have predicted the type of fall that Daly has had, but golf is an unforgiving game, a fact that Daly is well aware of.
Here we are in 2012 at Glory’s Last Shot, the PGA Championship. For everyone, Daly included, it’s their last shot at winning a major this season. But Daly has way more riding on this then anyone in the field. Twenty-one years after his biggest victory as a professional, it’s not just his last shot at winning a major this year, it could be his last shot at redemption, and as Daly is wont to do, he’s going to give that shot all he has.

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