Michael Sokolove






Warrior Girls

 

 

 

This Fat Boy Can Play

Published in The New York Times Magazine
April 7, 2002

John Daly, the pro golfer, is playing a practice round when the cellphone in his back pocket rings. It rings just as he has contorted himself to the very top of his famously long and violent swing and is poised to turn his coiled fury on the golf ball. He whips the club head forward; the ball rockets off with an audible sizzle; he calmly reaches for the phone.

"Hello, honey," he says.

It is his wife. His fourth.

"What's wrong? Nothing's working? Well, I can't. We're playin' golf, honey."

The former Sherrie Miller, whom he married in July after an eight-week courtship, tells him that the power has blinked off in "the bus" -- their $750,000 luxury mobile home, which is docked by the side of Outdoor Resorts Road in Palm Springs, Calif. She is hoping for air- conditioning. He is at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club, 20 minutes away.

"It's probably a circuit," he tells her. "Walk outside and look for that thing that says 50 amps."

Daly, 35, is at this moment polishing his game for the start of the 2002 P.G.A. Tour, hoping to build on one of the great comebacks in recent sports history. A decade ago, Daly was Tiger Woods -- a Ruthian figure on the fairway who attracted huge, raucous galleries and thrilled them by hitting golf balls outrageous distances, to parts of the course no one imagined could be reached from the tee. In a sport of uptight technicians, he played primal "grip it and rip it" golf. No practice swings. No discernible forethought. Just walk up to the ball and smack it.

Golfers are measured by their victories at the four "majors" -- the Masters, the United States Open, the British Open and the P.G.A. Championship -- and Daly captured two of them in his first five years on the tour. In August 1991, he qualified for the P.G.A. Championship as a last-minute alternate, then won it after driving all night to make his tee time. Four years later, he won the British Open. Among the hotshot golfers who cannot match his two majors are David Duval, Davis Love III, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson (who has yet to win even one).

But Daly drank, gambled and ate his way off golf's top rung, and nearly out of the sport itself. He is a veritable repository of vices and human frailty. For a time, it was said he was addicted to M&M's. His behavior through much of the 90's ranged between erratic and outright appalling. He trashed a hotel room while playing a tournament in South Africa. He was escorted off a plane after a confrontation with a flight attendant. He scuffled with a fan and pleaded guilty to harassment of his second wife, Bettye. In August 1998, at a tournament in Vancouver, news accounts said he suffered a severe case of the "shakes" on the 15th green and broke down and cried. He then composed himself and completed his round.

By the end of the 2000 season, Daly had plummeted to No. 507 in the world rankings. Only past glory -- his two victories in majors -- kept him eligible to play on the P.G.A. Tour. Then last year he re-emerged as a formidable, determined golfer. In September, he won a European Tour event in Germany, his first tournament victory since 1995. By year's end, he had won more than $1 million in prize money worldwide. At the start of the 2002 season, he picked right back up with his solid play, finishing in the top five in the Phoenix Open in January, and again two weeks later at the Buick Invitational in San Diego, Calif. At both events, Daly in contention was the story -- big crowds followed him from hole to hole, and the TV commentators seemed to root openly for him.

With his strong early-season play, Daly climbed all the way up to 41st in the world rankings, good enough to qualify for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, which begins Thursday. He will be a serious contender, especially now that the venerable course has been lengthened, giving long hitters even more of an advantage.

Daly did not play at Augusta last year; his five-year qualifying exemption for winning the British Open had expired (although he played only four of those years, because he was in alcohol rehab in 1997). "Because I blew it that one year, I asked could they please give me an exemption and invite me back," he says. "They were very nice about it, but they said no, I had to play my way back, which was O.K. because I knew I could."

What sustains Daly -- and undermines him -- what makes him so compelling and so exasperating is his crazy optimism. Each marriage is forever. Every hand's a winner. No shot is too difficult to attempt.

He tells me how he met Sherrie: "I saw her on No. 10 at FedEx," he says, referring to a tournament in Memphis. "I said to myself, 'I'm gonna marry that girl.' " A buddy of mine introduced us after the round. She said, 'I don't like blonds and I don't like golfers, but I do like fat boys.' So I knew I had a chance."

Daly, perennially the longest driver on the tour, plays the way no golfer could possibly hope to play. And he sometimes plays like every weekend golfer. Which is to say like an idiot.

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In 1998 at the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, he carded an 18 on a par-5 hole -- an 18 -- while dumping six straight shots into the water. A safer shot was available, but instead of laying up short of a lake, Daly kept trying to hit a 3-wood from the fairway that had to hook left, then fly the water, before finding landfall.

Golf fans love Daly's stubborn courage. Only Tiger Woods draws bigger galleries. But with each passing year, Tiger reins in more of his prodigious power and becomes better at "course management," which is just as electrifying as it sounds. It means hitting safer shots and minimizing mistakes. Tiger is still exciting. But compared with Daly, he's an accountant.

Right after the Bay Hill debacle, Daly called his good friend Bob Neill, a wealthy retiree and a sort of second father to him. "He said to me, 'I don't understand why I couldn't get it over the lake,' " Neill says. "I said, 'John, after the first two or three went in the water, shouldn't that have been a clue there was a problem and maybe you didn't have that shot in you at that particular time?' "

Woods, winner of six majors by age 26 and the standard by which all golfers are now measured, has changed professional golf in nearly every imaginable way. His fame and drawing power have brought higher television ratings and millions more in purses. Because Woods has won so much of that new money -- and because he works out rigorously and has the body and supple strength of an N.F.L. defensive back -- many players decided they had to become more "athletic" to compete with him. So they hit the weight room. Hired personal trainers. The formerly doughy David Duval went on such an exercise and nutrition regimen that he began to look emaciated.

Daly is 5-foot-11 and admits to 225 pounds. His gut is ample. He smokes while he plays; on average, about a Marlboro a hole. He is the anti-Tiger, unbitten by the fitness bug. On the days I was with him, he often putted only with his left hand, and I was never sure if this was some kind of practice drill or if he just didn't want to put down the cigarette in his right hand.

"Order the Double-Double, animal style," Daly advises before we have lunch at an In-N-Out Burger, a West Coast chain he has introduced me to. (Double-decker cheeseburger, extra sauce, mustard grilled into the meat, and it's delicious.)

"Does John work out at all?" I ask Neill, a question to which I think I know the answer. "No," Neill says, "but we really would like him to. Would you do me a favor and raise that with him?"

I raise it. He drops it. "It's not for me," Daly says. "People say you feel so good after you work out. Well, I don't. Every time I get on a bike or a treadmill, I puke afterward."

It is a sad fact that most athletic traits cannot be acquired. Daly, appearances to the contrary, is naturally flexible. It's what enables his exaggerated body turn as he takes the club back and what gives him his power and length off the tee. Most of the players torturing themselves in the weight room have no prayer of ever becoming as flexible as Daly is naturally.

The advantage conferred by hitting a golf ball as long as Daly can is similar to that afforded a pitcher who can throw a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. Experts sometimes say, "But does the pitcher have good control?" Or, "Can the golfer hit all the other required shots?" The questions are relevant, but they overlook the most salient point: these athletes start out with a huge advantage because they do not have to be as perfect as their less physically gifted competitors. Daly plays on a shorter golf course than everyone else. It's a pretty big advantage.

The P.G.A. Tour keeps statistics on players' average distance off the tee. In the first three months of this season, Woods ranked second at 297 yards, and the eight players behind him averaged between 290 and 295 yards. Daly ranked first -- at 311 yards. What this means is that his second shot is nearly always closer to the green than his competitors', which allows him to use a shorter, more lofted and usually more precise club.

And it is not as if Daly is deficient in other parts of the game. His long hitting obscures another trait he shares with Woods: a deft touch around the greens. Daly has what golfers call soft hands, the ability to hit short shots from near the green and roll them close to the hole. He has honed this talent in long sessions at the practice green he had built beside his home in Dardanelle, Ark. "I put my music on, I take my shirt off and I just hit little wedge shots for hours," Daly tells me. "You want to know my idea of heaven? That's it right there."

Daly grew up in small-town Dardanelle, the youngest of three children, with parents who were only occasional golfers. He hit his first golf ball at age 4, and is largely self-taught. He played a local nine-hole course, or hit balls in open fields. "I loved it right away because it was hard, but it was natural for me," he says.

Daly entered local tournaments as a teenager but was unknown in the wider world of junior golf. At 16, he won a regional junior tournament in Ohio. He played at the University of Arkansas, then on a couple of minor-league tours, finally making the P.G.A. Tour in January 1991 at age 25. He still has no coach, a rarity among top golfers. He travels with Sherrie, her 2-year-old son, Austin, and Donnie Crabtree, his best friend since the first grade.

Neill is another constant in Daly's life, highly valued by the golfer's professional advisers because, unlike so many people who attach themselves to professional athletes, he wants nothing in return. "Godfather," Daly calls him.

"Oh, my God, did you see that?" Neill will say after one of Daly's supersonic drives, even though he has witnessed thousands of them. He'll toss a handful of balls into the rough beside the green. "Hit those, John. Knock one in and I'll give you a thousand bucks." Daly chips every one within inches of the cup. "Can you believe that?" Neill chortles. "Those hands are soft, John, they are so soft."

Daly needs the encouragement, because for all the wild optimism and on-course risk taking, his confidence is fragile and fleeting. "When things aren't going well, he gets down on himself," says Bettye Daly. "He tells himself he stinks. And that's when things go bad."

Daly lives a kind of male fantasy life. He makes gobs of money, takes orders from no one, plays golf all the time, eats whatever he wants and, despite being fat, is seemingly irresistible to women. He has the life many men think they want -- and is what they fear they might become if they got it.

It does not take a high degree of psychological insight to conclude that he has some, uh, issues with control and authority. "I'm very proud of John," says Bettye, who was married to him in the early 1990's. "He seems to be getting his life together. But the thing that is probably not ever going to change with John is that he'd rather screw up than feel like somebody else is in charge."

Daly traces many of his problems back to college, where he feuded with a coach who urged him to lose weight and said he'd never amount to anything in golf unless he did. "That's when I started drinking Jack Daniel's real heavily," he says. "And I started smoking. I figured I wouldn't eat; I would just drink alcohol. And I did lose weight, like 75 pounds in two months. But he still wouldn't play me, and it just killed my confidence, my self-esteem, everything."

We are talking inside the bus, a mobile home as long and wide as a Greyhound and, if you count the satellite dish on top, taller. The ceiling is mirrored, the couch leopard print. A flat-screen TV dominates the front of the vehicle, above the driver. The bedroom accommodates a queen-size bed. The place feels like a casino on wheels. It's a lot of square footage to have out on the open road, but Daly never liked to fly, and Sept. 11 multiplied his fears. So this is the way he'll travel between most tournaments, despite concerns by some of his advisers that it will be too tiring. Crabtree does some of the driving, but Daly, of course, is mainly the one at the wheel.

Sherrie, 26, is in the kitchen cooking chicken cutlets and powdered mashed potatoes for Austin. (Daly has two daughters from previous marriages.) Before she met him, Sherrie sold cars in Memphis. She is gym-toned and blond -- but from a bottle," she says with a laugh, when I remind her that she professed not to like blonds -- and as open and blunt as her husband. I ask her if she sees part of her role as trying to keep her husband from self-destructive habits. "Not at all," she says emphatically. "I didn't come into this to look after John. He's old enough to look after himself."

Daly has twice been through alcohol rehab, including the stint in 1997. Two years later, the golf equipment maker Callaway terminated a lucrative endorsement deal after the company said Daly had broken his vow not to drink or gamble.

Many took the split with Callaway as alarming evidence that Daly had hit rock bottom. But the golfer traces his comeback to the splintering of that relationship. "The couple of years leading up to that were tough because all I did was listen to what everybody told me I was. People were trying to change this, change that -- even my golf swing. I'm self-taught, so nobody can really adjust my swing but me.

"I got convinced to go on medication. I was taking antidepressants, all these other pills. I felt like a lab rat. I blew up to 265 pounds. I was too mellow. I had no energy. Finally, I said: 'This is it, man. This ain't workin'. You guys are going to have to listen to me for a change."'

The Callaway break occasioned meetings of the team around Daly, including his longtime agent, John Mascatello, who, as he puts it, has been involved in many "tough love jobs" with his client. "There was a debate about whether he should go back to rehab. We voted that he should. John made the decision to solve his problem himself. He decided he was going to do it his way."

So is Daly drinking again, or does he just feel better because he can drink? Daly and some of those around him are evasive on this point.

"There's no endorsement contract now that prohibits drinking," Crabtree says when I ask him if Daly has continued to abstain.

When I ask Daly, he replies: "I couldn't tell you how many days I've been sober. People who count days spend most of their time thinking about drinking, and I don't even think about it."

Only Neill gives a direct answer. "He will have the occasional beer, but just beer. Nothing else. I saw him have a couple the other night. He can stop himself now where before he could not."

The Daly inner circle is actually more concerned right now with his gambling. Neill wants him to play the stock market, which offers better odds than the blackjack games and high-stakes slots he favors. Crabtree says: "I don't go in casinos with him anymore. I don't like to see it. I've seen him lose $300,000 in a night."

"We're trying to work him down to zero gambling," Neill says. How? "I don't know yet. But it has to be his idea, or we've got no chance."

It is difficult not to like John Daly, although sometimes in the way you like a puppy dog that leaves messes. It's no mystery why golf fans love him. He signs autographs, smiles at kids, high-fives the guys and hugs the women. He plays to the gallery, sometimes to his detriment. "John's an entertainer," Mascatello says. "He's had to separate that from being a golfer. People yell out, 'Hit the driver, John!' and he'll hit it even when it's not the smart thing to do. But fans see that human frailty. There's anxiety and excitement because you know he might fail."

He has friends from everywhere, including celebrities who get a kick out of playing golf with him. The actor Joe Pesci is a frequent golfing buddy. So is the singer Johnny Lee, who wrote "Lookin' for Love" ("in all the wrong places"). The one place he has not felt the love is within the golfing establishment. The P.G.A. Tour did not even put him on the ballot at the end of last season for the comeback player of the year. "I didn't understand that," he says. "I was coming back from, what, four bad years. That hurt my feelings an awful lot. To me, it seems like they're holding things against me from six, eight years ago."

He also felt snubbed by Tiger Woods, who did not invite him to his year-end invitational tournament, the Williams Challenge. "Tiger said he'd invite me if I won a European tournament, then he didn't. It rubbed me the wrong way."

Daly knows that winning is the ultimate redemption. In the days leading up to this season, he sequestered himself in the desert around Palm Springs, Calif., and practiced hard -- although certainly in his own fashion.

One morning, he played with friends at a course an hour west in Ontario. One of the golf carts was devoted to hauling beer and whiskey, although I didn't see Daly touch any of it. There were seven other players, and a small-stakes wager was arranged that had Daly playing against them all -- his one shot versus their best ball. He begged that he should be allowed to attempt two birdie putts if the first failed.

"But you've won two majors," one friend protested.

"That was a long time ago, Brother," John Daly answered. "That's ancient history."

But he doesn't really believe that. He thinks he can do it again.

Copyright ?2002 Michael Sokolove
 


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Michael Sokolove
author of The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw
and Warrior Girls
A contributing writer to The New York Times
Copyright ?2004-2013 Michael Sokolove

Drama High
to be released September 2013

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