Resplendent in a fuchsia golf shirt and blue-and-red board shorts patterned with oversize stars, John Daly arrived for his news conference at Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County on Wednesday afternoon sipping diet cola from a straw. It’s his beverage of choice for the most part these days, a habit along with the chain-smoking Daly leaned on heavily during well-publicized stints for treatment of alcohol abuse.
But by his admission, a life free from drinking wasn’t realistic in the long term for one of golf’s most outsize personalities, and four years ago, after a second trip to rehab, Daly began consuming a few beers periodically with friends. Temperance in any form often eludes Daly, but this latest attempt has lasted to the point that he’s at peace with his decision and his game.
So it was without hesitation when, after Daly earned his first PGA Tour Champions win two weeks ago, several fellow players sprayed the two-time major champion with champagne. The celebration continued with another lengthy ovation from the gallery, which frequently goes rows deep trying to get a glimpse of golf’s affable outlaw who draws crowds like few others in the sport.
“I think because I don’t have skeletons in my closet,” said Daly, a day before the start of the Senior PGA Championship at Trump National. “I’m a guy that’s always told them when I screw up, I screw up, and I admit it and go on. I don’t hide anything, because if I screw up, I did, but I think the fans relate to that. I think that if you hold something in your stomach for so long, if you don’t get it out, you’re always worried about it, and it just creates more problems.
“I can say, with this big old belly I got, there’s nothing inside that you probably don’t know about me.”
Unburdening himself aside, Daly, 51, remains a huge draw also because of his remarkable length off the tee. He ranks third on the 50-and-over PGA Tour Champions circuit in driving distance at 300.6 yards, more than 11 yards farther than the average on the PGA Tour. Daly’s driving average would place him 23rd on the regular tour, ahead of such prolific hitters at Rickie Fowler and Jason Day, both still to turn 30.
The “grip it and rip it” blueprint he has followed since joining the PGA Tour in 1991 — and winning the PGA Championship that year at Crooked Stick — has players mentioning Daly among the favorites to win his first senior tour major this weekend.
“Just look at him,” Rocco Mediate, the reigning Senior PGA champion, said of Daly, a longtime friend. “Tell me the allure there. There’s allure. He just brings people out. He just sends it. He’s probably one of the longest, straightest drivers ever in our sport. When he’s hitting 80 yards past you, I’m going, ‘Oh my God.’ He’s just something else.”
The Trump course, roughly 25 miles outside the District and formerly known as Lowes Island, is a stiff test to begin with, but soaking rain the past few days has the 7,127-yard layout playing that much longer. More rain is forecast for Thursday’s opening round.
With fairways soggy and providing nominal roll after the ball lands, there’s a premium on distance through the air off the tee, a Daly specialty. Between 1991 and 2002, for instance, Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance 11 times.
“The golf course is beautiful,” Daly said. “It’s got some pretty good par 3s. The par 5s, if I drive it really well, I can get home to most of them. I think here it’s just keeping it in the fairway. The rough’s up. It’s a little damp, which makes it tougher to hit out of, but it’s a great golf course. I’m looking forward to it.”
Daly’s breakthrough win on the senior tour came at the Insperity Invitational outside of Houston. Despite three straight bogeys to close, Daly shot a 3-under-par 72 in the final round at the Woodlands Country Club for a 14-under total of 202 to hold off Tommy Armour III and Kenny Perry by one shot. Armour and Perry rank first and second, respectively, in senior tour driving distance.
One year earlier, Daly made his senior debut at the Insperity, finishing in a tie for 17th at 2 under. So in demand was Daly that week that he played in multiple pro-ams, fielded questions from national and international media and had fans clamoring simply to watch him drive the ball at the practice range.
Circumstances have been similar at this week’s Senior PGA Championship, the oldest among the five majors on the senior tour and in the D.C. area for the first time.
“John Daly, for everything that comes with John Daly, he is loved, beloved and draws a lot of attention, and he brings a lot of attention to himself,” said local fan favorite Fred Funk, a nine-time winner on the senior tour and a former University of Maryland golf coach. “And that’s good for the tour. He’s one of our needle movers.”