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Winds at St. Andrews Can't Blow Daly Away

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 24, 1995

ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND, JULY 23 -- It was an almost anticlimactic playoff; over the four-hole playoff between John Daly and Italy's Costantino Rocca today, it was Secretariat at the Belmont, Chicago Bears 73, Washington Redskins 0, the Dream Team against anyone in the world.

Both men finished this wild-ride-in-the-wind final round tied at 6-under-par 282, Daly shooting 1-under 71 and Rocca 73. But Rocca finally ran out of miracles on a day when his heaven-sent 65-foot birdie putt -- right after he fluffed an easy chip with trembling hands on the final hole of regulation -- sent this third major of the year into extra holes.

There, Daly came up with three pars and a birdie, taking a five-shot lead into the last hole after Rocca needed three swings to extricate himself from the bodacious bunker at the third playoff hole -- the infamous 17th Road Hole. As usual in a championship contested on the wicked Old Course of St. Andrews, that 461-yard par-4 made all the difference in the final round of the 124th British Open.

Aggregate score in the playoff -- Daly with 15 strokes at 1 under, Rocca with a 3-over 19 -- finally settled the issue of whose name would be engraved on the silver Claret Jug once and for all. For the first time since Mark Calcavecchia prevailed in a playoff at Troon in 1989, an American claimed first prize at the oldest golf tournament in the world. Daly, 29, won $200,000 and became the first man to win two majors before the age of 30 since Spain's Seve Ballesteros, then 22, took the Masters in 1980. Just as significantly for Daly, it was a proud day for so many other reasons. "After all the stuff I've gone through," he said, "to win a major sober is unbelievable."

He had come from the ninth alternate spot, to win the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., a victory he now admits he doesn't remember much about because he was drinking. He was suspended by the PGA Tour and went through alcohol rehabilitation in 1993, then "voluntarily" left the tour at the urging of Commissioner Tim Finchem last fall to get his life and his game back on track. He returned at the start of the '95 season.

There was no indication early in the week Daly had gotten his game in gear. He was 111th on the PGA Tour money list coming in, with no top-10 finishes; he'd missed the cut in two of his previous three events. But Daly's bombs-away game and an underestimated touch around the greens was perfectly suited for the Old Course -- as long as he could avoid all those bunkers out on its relatively short, but lethal, 6,933 yards.

Today, with what Nick Faldo described as "the worst wind I can remember in an Open" gusting to 35 to 40 mph, most of Daly's competition was merely blown away. Third-round leader Michael Campbell of New Zealand was among the earliest victims. Though he led by two shots over Rocca and four over Daly at the start, three bogeys in the last five holes of the front nine ended his chances, though he could have made the playoff by holing out a long eagle putt off the fringe on 18. He missed, but a birdie tied him for third with American Mark Brooks and Englishman Steven Bottomley at 5-under 283.

Daly tied for the lead when Campbell bogeyed the fifth hole, missing an eight-footer while Daly was rolling in a 12-foot birdie putt up ahead at No. 8. Both men were at 8 under, but going in different directions.

When Campbell drove into a fairway bunker at No. 6 and bogeyed again, Daly took a lead he didn't relinquish until Rocca finally caught him with that putt for the ages at No. 18 more than three hours later.

Daly made things tough on himself with bogeys at 16 and 17. He three-putted from 55 feet, missing an eight-footer for par at the 382-yard 16th. At the Road Hole, Daly's second shot 6-iron from the left rough found the road bunker, less then a foot from the face of the wall.

His playing partner, Ernie Els, was just to the right in the same precarious position, about a foot from the six-foot-high, turf-bricked face. Daly marked his ball so Els could make his shot, a fortunate circumstance because he could see how the South African played the shot.

Daly got his ball out with one mighty swing, but needed two putts from 30 feet for a bogey that knocked him back to 6 under. He could have made it easy again after his second-shot sand wedge at the 18th landed 12 feet from the hole. But he two-putted there and had to wait for Rocca and Campbell in the last group, both still threats to force a playoff at No. 18.

Rocca got there with the first of two phenomenal strokes of the putter on the last two holes. At the 17th, he was on the asphalt road about 20 yards from the pin and putted. On impact, his ball popped up in the air -- "I don't know how, I was just lucky," he said later -- and rolled to within five feet. He made the putt to save par, and came to the 18th needing a birdie to tie Daly.

While Daly chain-smoked behind the scorer's trailer off the 18th green with his wife, Paulette, sitting there "just having a heart attack," Rocca put his drive 15 yards in front of the green on the 354-yard hole. He took out a sand wedge, then watched in horror as his ball moved about 12 yards, a stone-cold chili-dip. "I tried to cut the ball to stop it," Rocca said. "My hands don't go forward, they came back. But if I play a putter there, maybe I make three putts."

Instead, he needed only one. And when that unexpected birdie stroke from 65 feet found the middle of the hole, Rocca went down on both knees, looking skyward, hands clenched above his head. A moment later, he was in the prone position on the green, face down for 30 seconds. After his caddie retrieved the ball, Rocca had tears in his eyes, with only about 15 minutes to take a few putts on a nearby practice green to compose himself for the playoff.

After that, it was no contest. Rocca bogeyed the first hole with a three-putt. Daly was just off the front edge and two-putted from 13 feet for par. At the second hole, Daly drove the first stake in the Italian's heart, sinking a 35-foot putt up and over a ridge and straight down into the hole for a birdie. Rocca had no chance on his putt from the top of the ridge and settled for par, now down two shots.

Then it was on to the Road Hole just across from the second green. Rocca tried to cozy a 6-iron second shot to the flag but said he had difficulty judging the wind. His ball landed in the Road bunker, not far from where Daly had gone in regulation. When Daly saw his foe's predicament, he made the smartest second shot imaginable, a classic 9-iron links bump and run that rolled to 20 feet.

Now it was Rocca's turn. He swung once, with no success getting out. Then again. Still no luck. His third attempt finally got the ball up and over the top and onto the putting surface. But two putts from 30 feet left him with a triple bogey seven, five shots behind and out of hope.

Finally, Daly could begin to celebrate. For the second time he strode up 18 as the leader, and this time he kept it. Paulette said he'd probably go home tonight and "drink a gallon of Diet Coke and eat a whole lot of chocolate," also the pre-round breakfast of this champion today.

"It feels great . . . awesome," Daly said, holding the jug. "It's unbelievable the names that are on this thing. Just to be a part of it . . . I don't know what to say."

So press officer David Begg said it for him: "Well done, John."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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