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'Long John' Daly, 30 Years Past his PGA Win, Is Still Distinctively Different

The two-time major champion celebrated 'John Daly Night' in St. Louis with a one-of-kind first pitch at Busch Stadium that was totally on brand, writes Morning Read's Dan O'Neill.

John Daly was texting with Albert Pujols on Wednesday morning, ahead of throwing out the first pitch for “John Daly Night” at the Cardinals game in St. Louis.

A Cardinals star earlier in his career, Pujols happened to be in town with his new team, the Los Angeles Dodgers. A life-long Cardinals fan, Daly was asking Pujols if he could arrange wearing a Cardinals uniform and be behind home plate to catch Daly’s celebratory toss.

Of course, that was an unorthodox idea. The Cardinals were not about to allow an opposing player to don the iconic Birds on the Bat in their own stadium.

The suggestion was crazy, and it was so John Daly.

“I’m the biggest Cardinals fan you could ever think of,” said Daly, who went to high school in Jefferson City, Mo., some 125 miles west of downtown St. Louis.

If you think of the word “unorthodox,” in the context of professional golf, Daly is your visual. He is the man who introduced the sport to mullets, launched the first “bombs,” slapped Rolexes on exes and colored an otherwise soft-spoken game in Loudmouth pants.

And it all began 30 years ago, on an August day at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind.

John Daly, the ninth and final alternate, went “from zero to hero,” winning the PGA Championship and establishing one of golf’s most endearing Cinderella stories.

“Well, that got it all started,” Daly recalled, as he completed a pro-am round for the Champions Tour Ascension Charity Classic at Norwood Hills Country Club, in St. Louis. “I was excited, I mean, I didn't have any pressure on me. I went in there, I was hitting the ball pretty good and I just made a ton of putts.”

In a bigger picture, Daly did much more than make putts. His underdog victory at Crooked Stick reverberated for years to come, with good ol’ boys and white-haired grandmas, with barstool drinkers and blue jean babies, with gamblers and ramblers alike.

Six years before a 21-year old Tiger Woods manhandled the Masters, “Long John” became the biggest draw in the game. His “grip it and rip it” persona created a market for drivers the likes of which manufacturers had never experienced. His ordinary background, irreverent style and unfiltered thoughts registered with an audience golf hardly knew.

“That's my people,” Daly said, “the blue-collar crowd. I thrived on it. I didn't have anything, so hopefully it got a lot of people interested in the game that didn’t, that really couldn't afford it or didn't have it.”

As noted, eight other players had to drop out of the ’91 PGA for Daly to join the field. The blonde, 25-year old from the University of Arkansas drove all night from his home in Memphis to be there in time to tee off on Thursday morning. The last withdrawal was Nick Price, who returned home for the birth of a child. As a result, caddy Jeff “Squeaky” Medlen, was left without a bag and agreed to carry for Price’s replacement, Daly.

Although Daly never had a chance to practice on the demonic Pete Dye course — a course Jack Nicklaus had described as “very tough” — the late arrival caused a stir when he opened the championship with a 3-under-par 69.

The John Daly bobblehead.

The John Daly bobblehead.

The next day he shot a 5-under 67 to take a one-shot lead. On Saturday, he added another 69 and entered the final round with three-shot lead. At that point, Daly was no longer intriguing. He had morphed from “unknown” to unbelievable, the story of the week.

Medlen, who would reunite with Price in time to win the ’92 PGA at Bellerive Country Club, had never experienced anything like it. “John has shown me a side of golf I don't normally see," Medlen said at the time. "He hits the ball in places nobody else does.”

The night before the final round, Daly was spotted attending the Colt-Seahawks game at the Hoosier Dome. The place went nuts, giving him the biggest ovation of the night. The next day, the undaunted young man, who still holds place-kicking records for the Jefferson City Helias High football program, who taught himself to play by fishing golf balls out of a pond on 9-hole municipal in Dardanelle, Ark., made his first PGA Tour win a major championship.

His final-round 71 was good enough to win by three. And for Daly, the most important thing about that Sunday was how it impacted his playing status. In '91, first place at the PGA Championship was good enough for $230,000.

“I was so happy I kept my card,” Daly said. “I had made $167,000 coming into it, and just knowing I was going to have my card for the next year… That wouldn't even be in 500th place on the PGA TOUR now.”

Daly didn’t keep all of it. A tragic sidebar to that championship at Crooked Stick is what took place on the first day. An intense thunderstorm swept across the the golf course during mid-afternoon. Thomas Weaver, a fan from nearby Fishers, Ind., was struck and killed by lightning.

Arnold Palmer spoke to the media afterward. ”It's a terrible thing,” Palmer said. “People say, ‘What are you going to do about it.’ But there's nothing we can do about it.”

Daly tried, nonetheless. In his triumphant, life-changing moment, he put $30,000 from his winnings in a college fund for Weaver’s family, which included his two girls. Emily Weaver was 12 at the time, Karen only 8. The investment has realized substantial dividends.

“Yeah, we've stayed in touch,” Daly said of the family. “Both of the girls became (successful) — one's a doctor, one's a lawyer. One of the daughters has a child that is going to use that money to go to school as well.

“There was nothing good about what took place there, but at least something good came out of it. It paid off.”

When he thinks back on the week, Daly also remembers the key contributions of Medlen, who died in 1997, less than a year after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was only 43. Medlen carried Price’s bag through three major championships and the two were extremely close.

Price played a radically different game than Daly, reared for accuracy not distance. In contrast, from 1991-2002, Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance 11 times. In 1997, he became the first player to average more than 300 yards in driving distance. Nick Price was Shooter McGavin; John Daly was Happy Gilmore.

Medlen didn’t take long to adjust. On each tee box that week, as Daly surveyed the grounds, Medlen handed him the driver and one important piece of strategy: “Kill it, John.”

“He said it every time,” Daly recalled. “He was the best. It was always zoysia grass there, too, so the ball goes about a club or almost a club-and-a-half further on zoysia.

“So he says to me, ‘What do you hit your 8-iron?’ And at that time I was hitting it about 200. He goes, “OK, that's Nick Price's 6-iron. So you're two clubs less than he is, we'll just take it from there.’ And he never missed a club.”

Thirty years covers a lot of territory, some of it elevated, some depressed. When you become a household name, it all gets played out in public, the good, the bad and the ugly. Daly has had his share of all three. His life has had the texture of a Hank Williams Jr. song, bodacious but never boring.

“No, it was just something I had to get used to,” Daly said of the attention. “It was weird. People wanting my autograph going through airports and stuff was a little weird, but it was kind of fun. Everything has been worth it, no regrets.”

These days, Daly sports a beard that makes him look a bit like Tim Allen in The Santa Clause. Late last year, he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and underwent surgery. He was told at the time the cancer could come back, and he will find out in the weeks ahead whether that is the case.

For now, he feels good. “It's okay right now,” he said. “I'll know more in November, go back in and get checked to see if it's benign again. I go once a year for five years. So hopefully, cross my fingers.…”

And in truth, 30 years later, the ’91 PGA is not the event that ranks first on Daly’s hit parade of memories. Four years later, he beat Constantino Rocca in a playoff to win the ’95 British Open at St. Andrews. It was the type of championship, on the type of course, that separates authentic from conspicuous. It certified that what happened at Crooked Stick was no fluke.

“That tournament, I'll never, ever forget,” Daly said. “You never forget a major, but the British win at St. Andrews was the one that you think, ‘Hey, can you really do it again?’ You sit there and wonder if you can or can’t — that showed that it wasn't a freak accident.”

Later on Wednesday, Daly threw out the first pitch at Busch Stadium III. Friend and former Cardinals pitcher Ryan Franklin was his catcher, not Pujols. Daly wore a Cardinals jersey with “91” on the back. As he stood on the mound, he motioned Franklin from behind the plate to come closer, and closer.

Long John then went into the windup and tried to throw the "pitch" over the backstop screen for a fan to catch, well over Franklin's head. For those scoring at home, it was a wild pitch.

And 30 years later, it was so John Daly.