Every golfer knows that, in a lightning storm, you hold a 1-iron over your head. Why? Because not even God can hit a 1-iron. That's an old joke, but now it's got a new twist. John Daly has invented the zero-iron. It's not only got less loft than a 1-iron, it's got less loft than a putter. You might as well try to get a golf ball airborne with a sledgehammer. And if God can't hit a 1-iron, he's got no chance to hit a zero.

However, John Daly sure can -- 275 to 290 yards right down the middle of the fairway. Big John unveiled his monster for the first time this week at the Kemper Open. Now, he's threatening to win the tournament with it.

As a Daly zero-iron tee shot traced its way out of sight, one fan screamed, "Ooooouuucch." No, you wouldn't want to be a golf ball around the zero-iron.

"It's only got 2 degrees of loft. There's more loft on my putter than this club," said Daly after moving into a tie for fifth place, three shots out of the lead, with a 68. "Most of the {pros} who've seen it don't even want to touch it. They say they'd rather try to hit their putter off the tee."

When Gene Sarazen invented the sand wedge, he wore a long coat to hide the device so other pros wouldn't discover, then copy, his invention. Daly's glad to show his zero-iron to anybody. Why not? Decent players can't control 3-iron shots. Good players hate their 2-irons. Jack Nicklaus is considered the best of all 1-iron players because nobody can name anybody else who hits it.

In Daly's case, the zero-iron may prove to be far more than a gimmick. Though Daly is, by far, the longest driver in the world, the biggest irritation in his game has always been his tee shot. Last season Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance with an average of 289 yards, the longest since the stat has been kept. However, lots of holes get narrower as you get farther from the tee. What you want is a club that goes 275 yards with some accuracy, not a 300-plus yard blast that will end up in the weeds.

Daly has never had that club, and that drives him nuts. He's always hated a 3-wood and won't even carry one. As for the 1-iron, Daly loved it, but hit it "only" about 255 yards. If he didn't want to gamble for maximum length, he had to go all the way down to a club that completely negated his advantage in length. Every pop-gun driver on the PGA Tour can hit it 255 yards down the slot. Daly could be long and wild. Or he could be straight and average. Lousy choice. What about long and straight? That shot wasn't in his bag.

Now it is. The zero-iron is Daly's answer. It may change his career. In the Kemper, he's hit it on five to seven holes each day. And he scorches it. Of course, when he wants to be truly titanic, he can still snap his fingers and ask for that Big Dog. At the 16th hole yesterday, his drive went 317 yards.

"It's unbelievable to watch him. I don't think I could even hit it," said playing partner David Toms, who is tied with Steve Stricker in second place, one shot behind Jay Williamson. "He hits his zero-iron 10 yards past my drive."

The zero-iron has come just in time to give Daly the lift he's needed. Last season he won the British Open. So, many fans think his return from alcoholism, temper tantrums and a very rusty golf game must be complete. That's far from the truth. That week at St. Andrews restored Daly's confidence and persuaded him to take the game more seriously than he had previously. But that performance was also an aberration.

Daly didn't finish in the top 10 in any of the 22 PGA Tour events he entered in 1995 and, so far this season, he hasn't cracked the top 16 in 10 tries. He's been consistently decent -- shooting tons of 70s, 71s and 72s. On tour, that gets you a lot of ties for 57th place.

In his 10 previous tournaments this year, Daly had only three rounds in the sixties -- a 68 and two 69s. Now, in three days at Avenel, he's shot 69-67-68. The zero-iron has been the catalyst. But Daly's whole game may finally be jelling.

"This feels great. It's been awhile," said Daly, meaning he'd only been in such prime contention to win a tournament once in the past two seasons. "My scores this year haven't been that bad. But there's always been one or two shots that kept me from a really good score.

"It's just been a frustrating year. . . . We felt it was coming. I just hope I can keep hitting it like this. Whether I win or not on Sunday, I just want to play solid."

Daly and his novel club have been a godsend for the Kemper. The field was weak from the start. Then Nick Price withdrew and Corey Pavin never got his motor revved. That left Daly as the only true drawing card. Solid players, such as Payne Stewart, Larry Mize and Scott Hoch, are all bunched together one shot behind Daly. One might win. But they're not Big John.

The Kemper may be lucky enough to have Daly as a semi-fixture at this event. "In 1992, I fell in love with this golf course," said Daly. "I shot about 12 under par and finished 12th. But I could tell that if it ever played long, it would really suit my game. This year {with lush soft fairways}, it's definitely playing long." So, let that big zero-iron eat up the yards.

Daly is adored by crowds in many places. But Washington is apparently one of the few places on tour where they know how to let down their hair. "The fans here are great. . . . It's incredible, like I'm playing in front of a home crowd," said Daly. "There are a half dozen towns like that -- Dallas, Memphis, Houston and Washington, for sure."

At Avenel, fans at the 301-yard 14th hole always yell for Daly to "Go for it!" He hears "You Da Man" so much that you'd think he was Nicklaus. Perhaps they sense that one of the sport's great, but often misdirected, talents is finally entering the sober, zero-ironed core of his career.

"It's fine with me," says Daly of the circus atmosphere he's helped bring to an otherwise quiet event. "The louder the better." CAPTION: John Daly ponders shot on sixth hole, considering how to deal with a tree. He went through it and got a birdie.