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Great extremes

As ex-champions gather for fun, nostalgia, one wonders if John Daly will ever truly belong in such a group.

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 20, 2000


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Flashbacks here call for 20/20 vision. Sam Snead, 88, was on the No. 1 tee again at St. Andrews. It could've been golf's 20th century highlight film, but the British Open heroes were live Wednesday at the Old Course.

This being 2000, nostalgic retrospectives are everywhere. This one celebrated 22 of the 140-year-old tournament's 29 living champions, from his all-time eminence Jack Nicklaus and five-time winners Peter Thomson and Tom Watson, to last year's surprise, Paul Lawrie.

On an uncharacteristically sunny Scottish afternoon, the grand gang had a four-hole funfest before 30,000 with grandstands packed along the first, second, 17th and 18th.

Roberto de Vicenzo signed autographs. I almost shouted, "Check it first!" What a sweet legend, the Argentine who signed an erroneous Augusta National scorecard in 1968, costing him a playoff chance and making Bob Goalby a Masters champion.

Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros joked in Spanish, as they have for a golden generation.

Standing there, I wondered how John Daly, if he reappears at St. Andrews at some down-the-road Open, long after quitting the PGA Tour, might fit in among the icons if another such exhibition is offered.

You wonder if Long John can live to be as old as Snead or as stylish in his 60s as Bob Charles or as gracious as de Vicenzo when asked to reflect on tough times long past.

Among all who've won major championships, from Old Tom Morris to Young Tiger Woods, none is as perplexing to analyze as Daly, a gifted but eternally troubled Arkansas smasher.

At the Old Course, birthplace of the game, you expect winners with brilliant, analytical golfing minds, such as Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Ballesteros, but in the old sod's most recent British Open, it was the all-but-unharnessed humanity of Daly that ruled in 1995.

Since then, his excessive drinking, uncontrolled gambling, unhealthy eating, busted romances and turbulent golf have been monstrously documented. Daly's sad saga long ago became tiring. So many messed-up chances. Mindless tangents. John is easy to like, yet often troubling to the sporting stomach.

Last month at Pebble Beach, his beginning U.S. Open round also was his pathetic end. Tee shots at the 18th hole flew out of bounds right and then twice snap-hooked left into the Pacific Ocean.

John snapped. Gave up. Began to hockey-puck his ball. Daly's gallery, faithful through his mood swings, began to boo and disperse with frowns as John treated a greenside bunker as though it was the sandbox of a bratty child.

With a respectable 3-over score going into the gorgeous par-5 finishing hole, John hacked and goofed to 14, embarrassing himself and his sport, before fleeing Pebble to "get myself a few cold beers."

Daly was such a quick, magnetic, uplifting, heroic story when he exploded from golfing oblivion to win the PGA Championship in 1991. Soon, we learned of his sporadic ups and repetitive downs.

But when he seemed on an irreversible down spiral, Long John stunned us again, winning that British Open. In the five years since, he has not finished among the top 25 of any major championship. This year, Daly ranks 163rd among PGA Tour money winners.

Mostly, he has floundered.

Now, returning to the legendary Old Course, scene of his most whopping triumph, Daly wants to believe -- wants us to think -- a semi-return to his old ways has become the 34-year-old rebel's speedway to enhanced tranquility and recaptured happiness.

"I'm trying again," Daly said, referring to golf. "Coming back to St. Andrews breathes new life into me; no, make that old life. My dreams are as powerful as ever. My ultimate goal is to have me and Tiger Woods come down Sunday's stretch in a blazing fight to win this Open."

Woods is favored, Daly anything but.

Five years ago, he came to the Old Course as a teetotaling, chocolate-munching study. It worked. Daly gripped the Claret Jug with quite steady hands. Today's fellow is at least 90 degrees removed from the 1995 Long John. His latest theories make you gasp.

As one British newspaper wrote, "a lot of beer has passed over the epiglottis" of Daly since his Open conquest. Candy's gone. Alcohol is back. "After playing golf, I like to have a few beers but keep it moderated. I like having a few laughs. Dancing with women.

"I've had a huge rise in energy. Since the U.S. Open, a moment that I'm not proud of, I have worked hard on my game. I watched a video of the '95 British Open and noticed I was using a much wider stance on putts. I've gone back to that. Been holing just about everything."

Should we brace ourselves?

"I've surprised the world before, at least twice," he said. "My haircuts tend to change often. My waistline expands, then slims. I'm down 30 pounds from two months ago. I've chucked all my doctors and medication. No more Prozac or lithium, which was supposed to control my highs and low.

"With all those drugs, I often found it hard to get out of bed in the morning. I have become convinced -- although doctors think I'm crazy -- that life with beer in moderation can be the best answer for me."

Surely, clinical eyes do roll among specialists at the Betty Ford Center, where Daly was once treated for alcoholism but then skipped a second scheduled stay, a hairy decision that cost him a multimillion-dollar Callaway endorsement.

His words this week are scary. We are talking about a unique mentality among the precise, conservative, orderly souls of top-shelf golf. Medics, psychologists and fellow players are shaking heads, offering a concensus that amounts to, "Let's hope this unprescribed approach works for John."

Daly confesses, "I'm still fighting my demons. This is the first tournament I've looked forward to in many months. There's a magic in St. Andrews for me. Who knows what I'll look like or act like next week, next month or next year.

"I'm a constant experiment."

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