BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Two young guys wearing khakis and quarter-zip fleeces are standing in the shade right next to the 10th tee at Bethpage Black. They’ve lost their friends and scan the growing crowd on the other side of the ropes until the one leaning against the tree spots the rest of their group.
“Dude, tell them to come this way,” he says. “We wanna watch Daly tee off from right here!”
It’s 12:40 p.m. on Thursday. John Daly is supposed to begin his PGA Championship in 14 minutes, but he’s nowhere to be found. He’s playing with Y.E. Yang, who won the tournament in 2009 and Rich Beem, who won in 2002. They’re both here, but Daly—who won in 1991—seems to be taking his sweet time.
The 53-year-old golfer has made plenty of news this week. The PGA's Americans with Disabilities Act committee decided he could use a golf cart at Bethpage due to the arthritis in his knee. The decision has been controversial—Daly is only the second player, after Casey Martin, to be permitted use of a cart on the PGA Tour. Other golfers haven’t been jazzed about the decision. Tiger Woods, when asked about it on Tuesday, said, “As far as J.D. taking a cart? I walked with a broken leg, so ...”
Everyone here waiting for Daly seems pretty psyched about it, though. The cart has become one of the main storylines of the day, and we’re all packed in here to see the moment it finally rolls into view. Daly’s drawing a crowd that could rival the numbers Woods drew this morning, and this place is buzzing—people (mostly men) are lined up ten-deep behind me. They’re all cracking some version of the same joke.
“All the drunks are gonna follow him,” one guy says.
“I wonder if he has a cooler of beers in there,” another wonders.
12:45 comes and goes. Daly is about to be late for his own tee time (12:54) at a major championship. Beem and Yang take some practice swings. 12:46—still nothing. But at 12:47 a roar erupts from the crowd (whoops punctuated with “Big John!”s and “J.D.!”s) as Daly comes into view, bombing up the fairway in a dark green cart. He’s driving himself and he’s alone. His caddy, Peter Van Derriet, will have to walk. Daly’s white pants are patterned with the New York Yankees’ logo. He gets out of the cart and makes his way to the tee without much trouble.
“Johnny you gotta sell it, limp a little,” says one of the many guys behind me.
“He looks like Donald Trump!” another member of the crowd says.
Daly does look like Trump, if Trump and Hulk Hogan had a kid together and that kid grew up to smoke at least a pack of Marlboro Reds a day. Daly’s hair is shockingly blond and he’s rocking a deep tan, a blue polo, and white wraparound shades. He’s the last in his group to tee off, and I don’t see where his ball goes, but it doesn’t really matter. No one’s here to watch him golf; he doesn’t have a shot at winning. We’re here to watch him be a spectacle.
“Did you see him walk to his cart?,” one guy says to his friend, as they turn to follow Daly’s group. “Highlight of the event so far.”
“So awesome,” his buddy replies. “I love J.D.”
A lot of people do. After Daly sinks his putt on the 10th, his first hole of the day, he makes his way haltingly back to his cart, which is farther away than the 11th tee at this point. He drives by the ropes. A man who looks a lot like Daly yells out to him. Daly doesn’t really acknowledge the fan, but that doesn’t stop the guy from turning to his wife and saying, “very friendly, very nice man.”
Except...is he? It’s tempting to write about, think about, and experience Daly as a goofy uncle, as golf’s punchline, as The Funny Man In The Loud Pants, as the guy who rides around in a cart, ripping butts and sipping from McDonald’s drinks that he keeps in the cupholder. But that’s not exactly what we’re working with, and a lot of people here are either willingly forgetting that or never knew in the first place.
In 1992—a year after winning this very tournament—Daly was arrested and charged with third-degree assault for throwing his second wife Bettye Fulford against a wall when he was drunk. He pled guilty. In 2007, he turned up at a PGA tournament in Memphis with scratches on his face that he claimed came from his fourth wife, Sherrie, who stabbed him with a knife while he was sleeping. Sherrie countered with a court petition accusing Daly of sexually assaulting her and making up the knife story as a cover.
In addition to the charges of abuse against two out of his four wives, there’s a dark sadness to Daly’s own fight with himself. He’s struggled for decades with addiction; in 2010 he spent the night in jail after passing out in a Hooters, the restaurant chain outside of which he regularly parks his tour bus and holds meet-and-greets. He’s had sponsorship deals pulled because he refused to go to rehab. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his run-ins with the law and his attempts (or non-attempts) to get sober, but you can google the rest. You get the point.
The sport he plays has, to some extent, enabled this. Daly has consistently used golf to wash away his sins. He admitted as much in 2017 in an interview with TMZ Sports following Woods’ arrest for a DUI when he sent Woods a message: "Get back on the golf course, man,” he said. “This stuff will pass. It always does. Hey, it proves he's human, he's one of us, baby. I love him."
It does pass, apparently. By the time Daly gets to the 13th hole, there’s a huge crowd following him around, straining against the ropes. People forget what he’s done, or who he is, or perhaps they just don’t care. To many fans, he’s just a larger-than-life, outlandish, improper guy from Arkansas who Kool-Aid Man-ed his way into the most privileged sport. Wouldn’t it be fun if that’s all Daly were? If he could just exist as the harmless Al Cervick to the rest of the golf world’s Judge Smails? If we could revel in his sheer ridiculousness? In another life of his, filled with different choices and actions, we could.
But not this one.
Daly drives his cart directly across the fairway and then adjusts course to head to the green. As he assesses the putt he’ll have to make, he takes a drag of his cigarette. He looks at the hole, talks to his caddy, extinguishes the Marlboro Red on a piece of paper he’s carrying, wraps it up, and puts it into his pocket. He putts and misses the shot.
“That’s not gonna get it done, John,” says a guy in the grandstands behind the 13th green. Daly gets back in the cart and pulls away, his left leg draped nonchalantly outside the cart. A little boy a few rows in front of me asks his father, “Why, Dad, why does his caddy have to walk and he’s driving?”
The crowd following Daly doesn’t thin out much for the rest of the afternoon. The drunker spectators get, the funnier this man seems. He tees off at the first hole and I stay where I am. I watch him drive out of view behind a stand of trees. But then another roar goes up from far away. Two guys watching Patrick Cantlay putt on No. 18 turn toward the sound.
“John must’ve done well,” one of them says. His friend laughs. They take long sips of their beers and turn back away from the noise.