John Daly is back: Lean & Mean Outside, Big Heart Inside


They wouldn’t let him in the Hawaiian Open pro-am party Tuesday night because nobody recognized him. He’s lost over a hundred pounds and rededicated himself, hopefully John sticks to it. He’s on his last leg, and at 44 years old his competitive years are not many. Watching the Hawaiian Open’s first two rounds made me realize what a draw JD is.

The Golf Channel treated him like royalty while promoting their new show “Being John Daly”. They followed every shot Friday afternoon and intertwined some revealing interviews with Frank Nobilo. Too bad there were no shots to follow over the weekend. John has burned a lot of bridges and it is hard telling when we’ll see him again.

John Daly is an enigma. He’s been a Nascar driver looking for a crash. He puzzles friends, family, fellow PGA Tour members, corporate sponsors, and tournament officials. Since 1991 he’s never made a splash it’s always been a tidal wave. The press usually blows his personal life out of proportion but if you’re John Daly you pick up the pieces and move on. We all remember the 1991 PGA, the shivering J.D. walking off the course during the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, and the myriad of stories, pictures, and exaggerations about his off course exploits.

Caddying on the PGA Tour for twenty years gave me an inside look at John Daly, the human being. He’s likeable, moody, charismatic, self-destructive, talented, obsessive-compulsive, fascinating; he’s a combination of traits occupying opposite ends of the spectrum, there’s not much in the middle. He won the 1991 PGA after an all night drive from Arkansas and “Squeaky” Medlin on the bag, a caddy he’d never met. He was ninth alternate and never expected to play. The common golf fan embraced him and the stodgy golf elite shuddered. He drew larger crowds, pre-Tiger, than anyone else.

John just completed this year’s first round at Waialae CC, fired a 73, and went on to miss the cut. The course is short and tight, not really designed for John’s game, but he was there bringing his golf and engaging persona back to the galleries. He has a new woman in his life, Onna, who cracks the whip, takes care of his business affairs keeping him on the straight and narrower off the course. She’s keeping him on an even keel but sometimes it is hard for someone to play outside their personality.

John’s life has reflected his golf game, all or nothing. There’s no in between, but there is a large, caring heart just below those massive shoulders. He loves people, takes care of his friends and family, and doesn’t really care what the public thinks as long as he feels he’s doing the right thing. He’s created some extremely sticky situations over the years but always accepted the blame, faced the press straight away, and owned up to the consequences, unlike some other sports personalities these days.

He’s a soft spoken good ol’ boy who enjoys life’s extremes. Jeans and t-shirts, cut-offs and tank tops, Jack Daniels and diet Cokes, Dallas Cowboy games in Jerry Jones’ box, winning majors and walking off smaller venues mid-round, drinks at watering holes and dinners with Dubai royalty; there hasn’t been much in-between over the years, he’s loveable to all walks of life. John has let people down but always tried to make it up to them some way or another; he’s attached to his fans, not removed like most of today’s sports heroes.

At the 2008 Bayhill tournament hosted by Arnold Palmer J.D. had a rough week. His professional golf life was spiraling downward at the time and eventually Tim Finchem suspended John for six months. He’s been out of the limelight for awhile and on the surface appears a changed man; hopefully he hasn’t altered his big heart. He told Frank Nobilo during an interview last Wednesday in Hawaii, “As long as I don’t change my heart, I’ll be okay.”

I was there watching him handle the turmoil in 2008, maybe this will shed some light on John Daly, the person.

John Daly’s Week at Bay Hill – 2008   

Tiger and Stevie created all the excitement on the course last year; J.D. and Peter, his caddy, had some thorny off course matters, but the public doesn’t know the complete story. John dealt with some difficult issues that week, and those broad shoulders perched over his beer gut handled them very well. Everyone knows he was DQ’d because he missed his Wednesday pro-am time and Butch Harmon, his swing coach, made some disparaging public remarks about John. All of this hit the tabloid front pages full throttle; it was Golf Central breaking news and on the cover of periodicals.

John’s bus was parked at Celebration Country Club all week; we hung out at the Celebration Town Tavern and watched John deal with the turmoil. He came in from Tampa following the John Gruden/Hooters incident the Saturday before. It started Monday, escalated through the week, and he dealt with it all smiling, contributing what he could to Robert Gamez’s foundation pro-am. After playing in Arnold’s Monday pro-am he appeared on Leader Board Radio at the Town Tavern hosted by Ian Davies.

We were relaxing with a few beers, the crowd was enjoying the show and John’s company until three a@%#oles arrived in a limo. While John was being interviewed they started badgering him about being fat and not able to play anymore. Peter, John’s caddy, and I were sitting at a table with Robert’s old friend Hank when they turned on the crowd. John politely dismissed the rabble-rousers but they continued their insulting behavior and we couldn’t handle the abuse. We stood up, kindly asked them to move on when one of them pushed old Hank to the ground.

All hell broke loose for about thirty seconds. I was wrestling on the ground with the main culprit, Ian Davies had some bloody knuckles from a well placed fist, and John was the voice of reason. He stood on a chair, towered over the melee and bellowed, “Knock it off! Stop this shit! We don’t need this here at Billy’s place!” His presence cooled off the melee, everyone separated and replaced the overturned chairs and tables. John escorted the three culprits to a back room table, spent time creating some peace and set up a game with them later in the week. If the papers had caught wind of the incident, who knows what the headlines would have been.

Tuesday we saw John on the putting green. He had played golf with some friends, answered numerous questions about Butch Harmon’s public remarks, but still had that childish grin, shrugging his shoulder about all the hoopla.

We met at the Town Tavern for dinner and reviewed last night’s rhubarb. John didn’t want to take any credit for peacemaker, but did show us the text from Butch earlier that day. Butch is one of the top teachers in the world, but nobody has the right to say the things he did. There were no telephone calls or personal conversations, just text messages and Butch’s diatribes in the press. John shrugged it off, sought no retribution, and sipped on his diet Coke throughout the evening. Tom Glavine, along with a few other major leaguers, came in and John joined them before heading home early.

We all asked John and Peter what time they were playing the next day. Their tee time seemed odd for a pro-am and we suggested they double check it.

Both said, “Nope, this is what the tournament office gave us, it must be right.”

The tournament office staff gave John and Peter their Thursday tee time instead of the pro-am time. John was on his way to the course Wednesday for his assumed 11:11 time when he got a call from PGA tour officials saying he was DQ’d from the tournament because he missed his morning time.

John pleaded his case, but refused to place the blame on anyone but himself and Peter. Those broad shoulders have a pretty good base, plus they have had a lot of exercise over the years. Through all his turmoil John always accepts the blame and carries on with his life. He could have split town right then, packed up his bus and went home, but he stuck around. There were some charity commitments to keep and some neglected pro-am guests he wanted to play golf with over the weekend.

John apologized to Arnold and tournament sponsors then contacted the four guys he was supposed to play with Wednesday and rescheduled a Saturday round with them. He didn’t have to do it; his big heart forced him.

We kept an eye on John during the rest of the week, kind of a suicide watch, but it wasn’t necessary. He spent the days playing golf, hanging out at the bus, and making new friends. There were no drunken binges, I’m not going to say there was no drinking, and John hung around for Robert’s charity functions over the weekend.

None of this made the front pages. Golf Channel made an effort to get John’s side of the story but it didn’t get the same amount of air time as his screw-up. The papers made a minor reference to the Saturday round with the deserted pro-am team. There wasn’t much mentioned about two other players being DQ’d for pro-am infractions, only John made the headlines. John told us he didn’t care; he was doing the right thing, that’s all that matters.

Every time we stopped by the bus there was time for conversation and laughs. Some friends of mine were in town and he made them feel like long lost buddies. The guitar was out on the couch, the fridge was stocked, and John’s arms were open to everyone. The town of Celebration adopted him that week and vice versa. It wasn’t about John the golf celebrity; it was a lot about John the person. The local folks saw John’s Daly personal side and the community embraced the big guy.

Saturday Robert’s foundation put on a concert in downtown Celebration. J.D. was one of the first to arrive and positioned himself in front of the stage. Throughout the night he never turned down an autograph seeker, picture taker, hand-shaker, or a beer; and joined Hootie and the Blowfish for a few songs. He was the center of attention but really just wanted to be part of the crowd and help raise money for Robert’s children charities. John roamed the crowd coaxing cash from their pockets into a large jug then quietly disappeared when the job was done.

John was there for the charity dinner on Sunday night and of course the Monday pro-am. His shirt was on at all times and his foursome had a great time. He was in flip-flops and his celebrity partner got some special attention; she was a cute C&W singer, I don’t blame him. Most pros would have been long gone after the debacle on Wednesday, but John didn’t abandon his friends. He waved his appearance fee but wanted nobody to know; he was having fun for a good cause.

Maybe Bay Hill week was the start of his problems last year that led to his suspension in the fall. We’ve missed the loveable S.O.B. out here on tour; hopefully the suspension will do him some good. It was getting a bit out of control; a big heart and shoulders can only carry you so far. John is good for golf up to a point; the PGA Tour and corporate sponsors can only handle so much. Maybe this suspension should have been handed out long ago, but it’s hard to get pissed at John. That sheepish grin, shrug of the shoulders, and, “Sorry Pards’” has got him out of a lot of jams.

We all hope the grin comes back and he wins a few more tournaments before his career is over.

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