To his loudest fans—the ones currently paying him tribute by wearing flesh-colored skullcaps—John Daly will always remain the antigolfer who hit it the farthest, drank the most liquor, signed the most autographs and removed the most cranial hair. But Daly has become the biggest attraction in the game not so much because of his penchant for extremes but rather for the compelling way he has survived it.
That was never better demonstrated than last Sunday, when the 28-year-old Daly summoned all the grit and maturity he has gained from his three-year roller-coaster ride in the spotlight to win the Bell South Classic in Atlanta. Although he used his power judiciously all week, Daly resorted to extremes with unerring timing, most notably when he was tied for the lead on Sunday with one hole to play. He opted to tee off at the 499-yard par-5 18th with his driver instead of the irons he had used on this hole in the previous three rounds. After boldly cutting the dogleg left with a drive of considerably more than 300 yards, he had only an eight-iron to the green. When he then cruised a four-foot birdie putt into the hole, Daly had earned a victory more personally rewarding than either his history-making performance at the 1991 PGA Championship or his only other Tour triumph, at the '92 B.C. Open.
Last week's win came only two months after Daly's return to competition from a four-month suspension imposed in November by PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman. The sentence was brought on by incidents ranging from Daly's driving a ball over the heads of spectators at an exhibition to his quitting in two tournaments.
During his time away from the Tour, Daly underwent alcohol rehabilitation, worked with sports psychologist Bob Rotella and put in some of the hardest practice sessions of his life. It was the most discipline Daly had ever subjected himself to, and it was discipline that he drew on down the stretch at the Atlanta Country Club. "This is the first time I've won on the Tour in a sober manner," said an emotional Daly afterward. "I never got this nervous playing golf when I was drinking. I'm proud I'm doing the right things I'm supposed to do to win."
The victory also provides more evidence that Daly is far more than the Tour's unofficial loose cannon and curiosity. In the eyes of some of his peers, he is a potentially transcendent talent waiting to blossom. "When John's on, he plays a different game and, actually, an easier game than the rest of us are playing," said Nolan Henke after finishing a stroke behind Daly in Atlanta.
Since his return to the Tour, Daly has struggled at times, especially in late April at Greensboro, N.C., where he shot an opening 78 and then, disheartened, shaved his head. After a baldheaded 84 the next day, it appeared he might go off the deep end again. Instead, he went to the practice range and then to Houston, where he closed with a 67 that earned him a tie for seventh.
Four days later he was in Atlanta, opening with a 69. After a second-round 64, he had a two-stroke lead, which he retained with another 69 on Saturday. Upon birdieing the first two holes on Sunday, Daly opened up a four-stroke margin, but then he began missing short par putts. By the time he reached the 14th, he was one shot back. That's when his powerful survival instinct kicked in. Daly holed a 15-footer for birdie to regain a tie, and when he missed another four-footer to bogey the 16th, he kept his poise. "I just kind of hung in there and gutted it out," he said. "I couldn't have pulled that off two years ago."
If John Daly can go to the right extremes, there's no telling what he'll pull off.