John Daly still commands leader-board galleries, thousands of fans who empathize with his struggles off the course and are stunned beyond belief at what happens a few seconds after he pulls the head cover off his driver. They are convinced that if a golf ball ever bores into orbit, Daly will launch it.
Those who followed Daly on the front nine yesterday at TPC at Avenel were rewarded when he came within 10 yards of driving the green on the 359-yard fifth hole. At No. 8, one of the holes the PGA Tour uses to measure driving distance, Daly's ball landed at the 300-yard mark and rolled another 30 yards.
"He hit it 328 [in] the first round," said Jim Rogers of Westwood Country Club, the fairway marshall who determines and records the length of each drive on the hole. "I'd say the average length is about 275."
Trouble is, Daly can't finish. Going into the Kemper, he was the runaway leader on tour in driving distance with an average of 308 yards. Chris Couch and Tiger Woods are second and third with averages of 291.8 and 291.3, respectively. But Daly is 114th on the money list -- and will drop a bunch of places next week after missing the cut at the Kemper with a 78-77 -- 155, 13 over par.
The fifth and eighth holes -- both par-4s -- are reasonable illustrations of how Daly's game has gone sour since he won the 1995 British Open. From just 10 yards short of the green on No. 5, he made only par. From dead-center in the fairway on the 453-yard No. 8, he chunked his short-iron approach into a bunker and needed to make an 11-foot putt to save par.
So certain was Daly of not making the cut that he cleaned out his locker before yesterday's round began. He changed his shoes near the trunk of his courtesy sport-utility vehicle in the parking lot and drove off without acknowledging a reporter, let alone agreeing to a couple of questions.
But his fans remain faithful and hopeful.
"Everyone knows it's just a matter of time before he puts it together," said Robert Garrity of Middletown, Md.
Garrity and his 10-year-old son, Cullen, walked most of the front nine yesterday and Cullen was the surprised and happy recipient of two of Daly's balls. Players change balls about every three holes -- and Daly's caddie gave Cullen one and a marshall handed him another.
"On the first hole [Daly's 10th of the round], he saw a youngster in a wheelchair near the fairway," said playing partner Dennis Paulson. "He goes and gets a brand new glove, signs it and gives it to the kid. Stuff like that happens a lot."
So does other stuff. Sadder stuff. While most fans root for Daly to overcome his well-publicized battle with alcohol, a few taunt him.
"I played with him on Friday at Phoenix," said Paulson, referring to the tour stop at the end of January. "It was ugly. Some people yelled that [Alcoholics Anonymous] is for quitters. Some others were calling him a [chicken] when he didn't hit a driver."
Paulson played with Daly in both rounds at Avenel and easily made the cut with a 72-67 -- 139. Of the galleries at Avenel, he said: "They were great. You could tell they were kinda bugged out when he didn't hit a driver at 15 [the 467-yard par-4] the first day, but it was just `aaaaaaaaaaw.' "
Interestingly, Daly's best tournament in 1999 was in Phoenix. He tied for 14th and earned $52,500 of his season total of $158,022. In his last seven tournaments, he has withdrawn twice, missed the cut twice and finished no higher than 51st. His final round at The Masters was an 81. In the last three years, he has made the cut in slightly more than half the tournaments he entered.
"Keep him on the straight and narrow and everything will be fine, he'll be a much better player," Paulson said. "It takes a while to get rid of what they call the demons."
CAPTION: John Daly (13 over par) failed to make cut at this year's Kemper.