The smell of grease swirls through the air and around the pastel-colored walls of John Daly's hotel room. His folk-hero lunch of the day has arrived, and he has taken burgers and fries and a 32-ounce Coke from a giant paper bag. The meal is spread across a coffee table. The fries are in a red cardboard sleeve almost wide enough to hold a pair of golf shoes. The Coke is in a cup the size of a washerwoman's bucket. Daly stubs out his folk-hero cigarette in a convenient ashtray and begins to eat.
"Do you want something?" he asks his agent, John Mascatello, from behind the pile of food.
"I ate already, John," says the agent. "Guess what I had."
September 8, 1991
"I had a salad. I had lettuce, John."
"I had lettuce, and it was good."
"Are you becoming a vegetarian on me?"
"You are becoming vegetarian."
"No," the agent says. "It's just, traveling with you, I needed some lettuce. Do you know what I mean? I just had a need...lettuce."
The city is Akron, and for two weeks life has been lived in this high-cholesterol blur. The folk hero, known previously only as a young and struggling professional golfer with a tendency to hit a dimpled white ball a long, long way, has been lifted onto the ride of rides, thrown into the celebrity sky by some ultimate athletic catapult. He is the grand overnight sensation, the long-shot winner of the PGA Championship, a blond-headed guy with a touch of country, a lot of muscle and a quality, a something, that made the most casual golf spectator appreciate his work during the second weekend of August in that one tournament at Crooked Stick Golf Club in the Indianapolis suburbs.
In less than two hours, he will tee off in the first round of the NEC World Series of Golf at the Firestone Country Club. The 48-man field is supposed to comprise the most successful performers of the year. He will be the biggest success of all the successes by far—all from one win. No one in golf has made this kind of hit in a long time. Maybe never. Not this quickly. The modern media machinery, as sophisticated as any of the equipment sent to the Middle East to liberate Kuwait, has worked with dizzying speed. The unknown has become the known, maybe even the overknown. Offers have been presented. Contracts have been signed. There has been no time to stop, little time to pause. Every day has been a fast-food hurry. Eat and move.
"Where does the time go?" the folk hero wonders. "I was up at 7:30, across the street for a breakfast burrito. I love the breakfast burrito. Now it's after 12."
From Indianapolis, let's see, the road led to Denver for the International tournament at Castle Pines, to Oklahoma City for a pro-am and now Akron. There was a clothing and shoe deal with Reebok that was started almost the moment the final putt dropped at Crooked Stick. The contract has been signed. The Pump shoes have arrived in the mail and will be worn for the first time in Akron. There were visits to kick field goals at the training camps of both the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos. There was an invitation to kick in the Colts' third exhibition game, an invitation that was taken back in the interest of Daly's safety by Indy general manager Jim Irsay. ("I would have loved to have done it," says the folk hero, a left-footed, straight-ahead kicker in high school. "I would have signed any waiver they wanted. I was five for five at the Bronco camp.") There was a personal visit in Colorado from Karsten Solheim, the inventor of the Ping clubs that Daly uses. There was a conversation with Larry King. Live. There was a handwritten note from Jack Nicklaus that will be framed.
The donation of $30,000 from the $230,000 winner's purse to start a scholarship fund for the two children of Thomas Weaver, a spectator who was killed by lightning on the first day at Crooked Stick, has been nothing less than the subject of Sunday sermons. The John Daly golfing philosophy—Grip it and rip it—has become a driving range slogan. There have been offers for instructional videos, for a video game, for a book; discussions to represent powerful automobiles and long-distance telephone companies. CBS took him to an airport in Denver to drive golf balls on a runway. He hit one ball that traveled 330 yards through the air, hit the concrete and started rolling. It stopped at 880 yards. No one was injured.
"That was fun," Daly says. "I was hitting balls yesterday for some people from Golf Digest. They had me hitting the balls into a lake."
The suddenness of all of this—Golf Digest wants me to hit balls into a lake?—cannot be overemphasized. Not only was it not expected, but it also wasn't even part of a dream. Daly did not think he was ready to win a tournament this year, much less a major tournament. He went to Crooked Stick hoping to finish among the top 125 money winners at year's end, which would obviate the need for a return trip to the PGA Qualifying School.
But win the tournament? Not much more than a year earlier, broke and frustrated, on the rebound from a failed marriage, he was ready to quit. Now he will almost certainly be a millionaire by the time he fills out his 1991 Form 1040. He is exempt from Tour qualifying for 10 years. He is playing in the Masters and the British Open and in Japan. He is a skyrocket.
"What makes John unique is that no one in the country really had seen him," says Mascatello, who has represented Daly for half a year. "He is a rookie, and his best finish in a big tournament was a tie for fourth at the Honda Classic in Coral Springs, Florida, in March. His two other best finishes—New England and Chattanooga—were tournaments that weren't on television. Here he was, he'd made $166,000 on the Tour this year, but he never was on television. No one knew what this kid was about."
Now he is so well known that even his fiancèe, Bettye Fulford, has become part of the celebrity buzz. She is the sidekick. Wasn't that the greatest hug she gave him at the 18th at Crooked Stick? Hadn't they planned to be married during the weeks of the Memorial, then the Colonial and then postponed the wedding because he made the field? Aren't they going to be married on Tuesday of the week of the Las Vegas International in October in a little chapel on the Strip, scratchy recording of the Wedding March, the whole package? Even their car has become a celebrity, the Arkansas Razorback red BMW that Daly bought for Fulford on the Tuesday before the PGA and that they drove from Memphis to Indianapolis the following day. Weren't they playing with the controls on the dashboard while they traveled, not knowing if Daly, the ninth alternate, would even be included in the PGA field? Fulford had said that this had been "crazy," that there was no money to pay for that kind of car. Daly had said something about "life on the edge."
They played Eddie Money and Bad Company and Michael Bolton on the tape deck on the trip, went blindly and dramatically over the edge with the grace and speed of Thelma and Louise in those four 12-under-par days, and then left the car in Indianapolis and flew to Colorado. The car is back on the scene now, driven to Akron by a PGA official. It sits in the hotel parking lot, a temporary Tennessee plate stuck in the back window. The registration has expired. "What are you going to do?" the folk hero says as he finishes lunch. "We haven't been back."
In a corner of the hotel room, standing like an obedient child, is his white golf bag with his clubs. Daly brushes himself off and picks up the bag. Enough of this. There is folk-hero work to be done. He says that most pro golfers keep their clubs in their rooms. He could leave the clubs at the course, but who knows what might happen overnight in a clubhouse? Better to be sure.
"At the very least, I would think most guys would take home their putters," says Mascatello.
Daly smiles. "Me," he says, "I'd take home the driver."
"I can't see him," Fulford says at the course. "That's one thing that's different. Before, I could watch him play. Now? How can I see him?"
The folk hero is struggling, but the crowd does not seem to mind. His gallery is easily the largest on the course, double the size of any other gallery, maybe triple. He is in the process of shooting 80, the worst round in the field on this first World Series day, his drives flying everywhere, his second shots from beneath trees and out of tall grass and from far, far away on other fairways. The people rush to each new predicament, waiting for him to hit the ball as hard as he can. He hits.
He is smaller than most people expected after reading those stories that made him sound as if he were a long-driving mixture of Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone and maybe a bit of John Henry, who was a steel-driving man, Lord, Lord. He is 5'10", maybe 185 pounds. At 25, he is the youngest pro to win a PGA Tour event this year, but he looks even younger than that. He has that adolescent-goof haircut, trimmed on the top and long in the back, and his mustache is pale blond and almost transparent. Add the baggy pants and the semi-Hawaiian shirt, and he could be at the front door, waiting to take your daughter on a pizza date.
His folk-hero power comes from his folk-hero swing. He goes past the traditional line of the backswing, parallel to the ground, and raises his hands as far as they can go, turning the body, turning, turning. The ensuing downward force is as subtle as a Jose Canseco shot at a home run on a 3-2 fastball in the bottom of the ninth. This is a homegrown swing, an invention, not a calculation prescribed by a country-club professional. This is a man who taught himself how to dance.
"My father gave me some Jack Nicklaus MacGregor clubs when I was six years old," says Daly. "He cut down some of the shafts, but they were men's clubs, so they were heavy. That's how I started swinging like that, because I needed more strength. I just started swinging, and following this series that Nicklaus did for Golf Digest and went from there."
His father, Jim, is a nuclear engineer whose job demanded frequent moves. The folk-hero story works best with a country and western sound from Daly's hometown of Dardanelle, Ark., and his newly adopted city of Memphis, but he has lived all over the place. He was born in California. He lived for a while in Virginia. He was a state high school golf champion of Missouri as a junior, of Arkansas as a senior. His companion through all of the moving was golf. Golf was a friend that always was available, anyplace, anytime, a friend that could lead to other friends. If there were no friends, the kid could take a bag of balls into the woods and invent shots. Daly would do that, try to bend shots around trees and under branches. Why does no one talk about the imagination that is involved in golf? The kid always wondered. Golf in the woods. Imagine.
"I'd play golf with him every day when he was about 12," says Eileen Blain, a golfing friend from Locust Grove, Va. "He was the nicest little kid, so carefree and happy when he was out there on the course. He'd play 18 holes with someone else and 18 with me, and at night—our house is on the 14th tee of the Lake of the Woods golf course—I'd see him hitting shots to the 13th green. Once he told me he'd played nine holes in the moonlight. When he was 13, just turned 13, he won the men's spring championship at the club. This little kid beat all the men. They were so mad, they made a rule that you had to be 18 to enter the men's championship. That's still the rule here."
"This little kid. There were some men who were really put out," says Eileen's husband, Roger. "He could hit the ball 200 yards at that age. He could make any green at our course."
"I met him when he was 17," says Rick Ross, a teaching pro in Hot Springs Village, Ark. "I was struggling, trying to make money as a pro at the Bay Ridge Boat & Golf Club in Dardanelle. He moved there for his senior year of high school. His swing was the same then as it is now. It is unorthodox, sure, if you look at the way golf has been taught for the last 30 years—the parallel swing—but if you go back before that, his swing isn't unorthodox at all. His swing isn't that much different from Bobby Jones's or Jimmy Demaret's. I've read about how Jack Grout had Nicklaus swinging for distance when Nicklaus was a kid. That's what John did."
He kicked in football and pitched in baseball. Those sports, though, were fillers. Golf was still the best friend. He was pudgy when he enrolled at the University of Arkansas, where the coach, Steve Loy, put him on a diet right away. He dropped 40 pounds in three months. He never cared much about school, so he quit Arkansas after three years to hit the ball and see how far it would go.
The rest has been learning. Learning about the complexities of travel and about the complexities of marriage when one person wants to travel and the other one doesn't. About life and golf and, now, success. Crash course, this success.
"I call him John-Boy, like that Richard Thomas character in The Waltons," says Don Cline, an older man, another golfing friend from Dardanelle. "That's how I think of him. All these stories that have come out—they make him out to be some hick from the sticks or some wild man. They're looking for nicknames for him: Wild Thing. They're all talking about the hair and the smoking and hitting the ball a long way. I think he's a lot more thoughtful than that. The charities? The money he's given to people he doesn't know, even when he didn't have money himself? I think John-Boy should be it. Coming down from Walton's Mountain."
Fulford, who has been with Daly for more than a year and is credited with being the great settling influence in his life, does not think so. She tells a story. She says they were in South Africa and it was the night before the final round of a tournament. She went to bed. He went to the casinos in Sun City. In the morning he came to the room and handed her $40,000 in cash. He told her to take the money to a bank and get a certified check for the ride home. Fulford walked the streets with cash stuffed in every pocket she could find. She saw peril on every street corner. All this money. From gambling.
"The thing is, he'd lost almost that much before he won," she says. "He was all the way down and then climbed back. Blackjack. It took him all night. I just don't think John-Boy would do that. John is a little harder than John-Boy."
She says this somewhere along the fairway of the 16th hole at Firestone. This is the hole that is supposed to be Daly's big challenge, a monster 625-yard par 5. Can he reach the green in two? Few humans have. Taking out the Cobra driver with the red titanium shaft and the fat Kevlar head, he swings. There is not the expected crowd reaction of awe. She strains to look through the spectators for her man. She sees a branch move on the other side of the fairway. "Oh my god," she says. "He's in a bush."
The imagination of golf. He collects a seven on the hole.
The final line for the four days is 80-72-71-69—292. If he hadn't shot the 80.... If he'd had more rest.... If he had known the course better in the beginning.... But he is happy enough. He and Fulford are going home. She would have liked to have gone to an island somewhere, just the two of them. The second choice is Memphis for a few days, then on to Dardanelle for a John Daly banquet at the old nine-hole Boat & Golf Club and maybe a few buckets of balls at the driving range he had built on his father's property a few years ago—Bermuda grass tees and 13 acres to the out-of-bounds marker—followed by a trip to Hot Springs Village to help Ross dedicate a new golf course. Two weeks and then back to the Tour.
"We'll be driving the car to everything, if we can," says Daly. "No airplanes for this boy if he can help it. I'll fly if I have to, but if I don't, I won't. Two things are wrong with airplanes—one is that if that thing goes down, you can just kiss your ass goodbye, and two is that there is no McDonald's in the sky."
The grand posse of attention will follow. He will be asked to hit golf balls over monuments and through phone books; to endorse baby foods and engine lubricants. His driver will be accorded the respect of, say, the Buntline Special. His words will be quoted as folk wisdom.
There is a scariness about it all....
"You almost feel sorry for him," says Billy Andrade, a two-lime winner this year on the Tour. "Everyone's so hungry for a superstar, and it's just not going to happen. It can't happen. This isn't 1965 with Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Trevino. There are too many good players out here. Golf has changed too much for one player to dominate. For one week, John Daly was the best player on the planet, but next week someone else will be the best player on the planet. There are too many guys, if they're playing the best they can, that one week, who can't be beat."
But there also is a lovely unknown.
"This isn't a game of flukes," says Mascatello. "This isn't one game, one day, one jump shot at the buzzer. He did it for four days. How many shots did he take in those four days? He didn't make one mistake. Why can't he do that again?"