After John Daly first made his mark in golf, winning the 1991
PGA, some of the golf magazines ran pictures of Daly and a young
Jack Nicklaus at the top of their swings. The similarities were
uncanny: the massive legs, the huge hip turns, the drumstick
forearms, the clubheads dangling way under the parallel line.
Daly could do it, Nicklaus, ever generous, said. He could be the
next one. Later, when Daly got in trouble with alcohol and bad
marriages and hotel furniture, Nicklaus, ever generous, offered
his help. He invited Big John to have lunch, to call, to play
practice rounds with him. Daly, the damn fool, showed no interest.
Last week, at the most beautiful place in golfdom, both men said
goodbye to the U.S. Open, possibly forever. Their exits, their
lives, our feelings for them, couldn't be more different. About
the only thing the two share is the knack for a difficult game
and the position at the top of their swings, in old photos,
On Friday, Nicklaus, with no chance of making the cut, played
the home hole at Pebble Beach with a smashed driver, a flushed
three-wood from 260 yards and three putts: a par. Thousands of
paying fans filled his ears with sustained applause. The lower
lip of the best U.S. Open player ever--better than Hogan, better
than Jones--began to quiver. He walked over to his wife,
Barbara, and said, "That's the end of it."
Forty-four consecutive Opens. Back in the fairway, a threesome
of old pros, all Open winners--Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Tom
Watson--stood clapping. Watson took a towel from his caddie and
dabbed his eyes. Later, Nicklaus, a career .400 needler, called
Watson "a baby."
On Thursday, John Daly, with every chance of making the cut,
came to Pebble's 18th. He was three over for the day,
respectable enough. His first tee shot was a yard out-of-bounds,
but he didn't realize it until he had finished a foggy 300-yard
walk. His next two drives finished in the Pacific. Playing
haphazardly, he made a 14, 83 for the day. On his way out of the
scorer's tent, he waved his puffy hand goodbye. He would not be
returning for his second round, the baby. Daly's timing, as
usual, was poor. Had he withdrawn a day earlier, someone else
could have taken his spot. What a shame.
Daly's whole life is a shame. In terms of talent, the raw
ability to play shots, Daly is the best I've ever seen. When he
was on his game, he was like an idiot savant. He would see the
shot in his head, yank a club and make the shot happen. Five
summers ago, he won a British Open on the Old Course. Winning at
St. Andrews takes luck, nerve and golfing genius. Ask Nicklaus.
The USGA gives British Open victors invitations to the U.S. Open
for five years, and Daly squandered his last one at Pebble. He
can qualify for the 2001 Open at Southern Hills, but the chances
of that appear remote. What seems more likely is that he'll wind
up on the side of a road, his limp body draped over a steering
wheel. For his sake, for the sake of his family, for the sake of
anybody else who might be on the road and in his way, for the
sake of his fans, myself among them, I pray that doesn't happen.
But that's where his life seems headed.
Anyone who has spent time with Daly knows that he's a nice, but
mixed-up, 34-year-old with a slew of problems, alcoholism chief
among them. He shouldn't be playing pro golf. Anyone who
encourages him to do so is--in the word 12-steppers use--an
enabler. Daly should be saying, I'll be back when I'm ready.
Of course Watson cried when Nicklaus made his Open farewell.
Nicklaus enabled Watson to define the moments of his life, and
Nicklaus's passage has marked time for you and me as well. When
I was born in 1960, Nicklaus was already a great golfer, and
when I graduated from high school in 1978, Nicklaus was at the
peak of his power. When I got my first job on a daily newspaper,
in 1986, Nicklaus, his powers waning, was still a great golfer.
A great loser, too. A great sportsman. The best ever. You, no
doubt, have your own way of marking the years.
Now he is saying it's over. Where exactly does that leave us?