Golf: Daly back with smoke and fire: Alcohol-free American blazes trail as Faldo gets back in the swing in the run-up to the Masters

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The Independent Online
JOHN DALY, slimmer and alcohol-free, remarked on his new regime that he was healthier but had become more boring. He said that if he fell off the wagon it would kill him. The anti-smoking lobby would probably argue that he is not doing himself any favours by driving down tobacco road.

On the first green he had a cigarette lit by the time Nick Faldo was putting. On the third hole he was drawing on another Marlboro. You could follow Daly's progress not only by the number of spectators he - and Faldo - attracted, but also by the trail of cigarette butts. He is up to four packets a day. Not that anybody objected. Daly was not only back, he was satisfying the craving of the crowd. As far as they are concerned, Marlboro man is a breath of fresh air.

Daly, playing in his first event since being banned for picking up his ball at a tournament in Hawaii four months ago - conduct unbecoming of a professional was the charge - shot 69 in the Honda Classic at Weston Hills, and that put him on the leaderboard. When he sat down in the press room he was handed a paper cup. He sniffed the contents. 'Is it water?' he asked, before taking a swig. 'It is water. Thank God.'

The 18th hole seems to have been designed with Daly's extraordinary powers in mind. It is a par five of 585 yards, with water down the right of the fairway and in front of the green. The sensible course is to lay up short in two and hope to pitch close enough to the flag to get a birdie. After a huge drive, Daly had 265 yards to the hole and he hit a two-iron beyond the flag. He got his four with two putts.

'He hit two of his Sunday best shots,' Faldo remarked of his playing partner. 'Compared to that my Sunday best would look like a Wednesday afternoon.' Faldo, who went round in a one-under-par 70, took the conventional route down the 18th, pitched to six feet but left his putt for a birdie on the lip. 'I kept giving myself chances and that's a good thing,' Faldo said. 'I've got to work on the tempo of my putting.'

Daly, Faldo, and Bernhard Langer - the German and Brandel Chamblee, from Phoenix, set the pace with a 67 - were in the half of the field that had early tee-times and, as the wind got up later, they enjoyed favourable conditions.

'He's swinging better than ever,' David Leadbetter, watching from behind the ropes, said of Faldo. 'He's bound to be a bit tentative with his putting because he's hardly played. He's priming himself for the Masters.'

Faldo began with a bogey five, fooled by the breeze into leaving his approach shot short of the green. His six-foot putt to save par hit the cup but stayed out. Daly had a similar putt for birdie and his ball behaved in almost identical fashion.

Yesterday he was not just long off the tee but, for the most part, accurate. At the fourth, the 27-year-old American was about 60 yards in front of Faldo and was left with a simple pitch shot to the green. Fortunately golf is not simply a long driving contest. Daly put his approach through the back of the green, chipped 10 feet past the flag and missed the putt: bogey five. At the next, a par three of 197 yards, he hit a five-iron to the back, came down a slope to within three feet of the hole and missed the putt: bogey four.

Daly and Faldo repaired the damage, going to the turn in a level-par 35. 'After the front nine I was ready to go round in a golf cart,' Daly said. 'That's only the second time I've walked 18 holes in three months.'

HONDA CLASSIC (Fort Lauderdale) Leading early first-round scores (US unless stated): 67 B Chamblee, B Langer (Ger). 68 B Claar, J Ozaki (Japan), A Magee, D Love, J Gallagher, B Lietzke, C Parry (Aus), S Hoch, M McCumber, B Fleisher, T Purtzer. 69 J Daly, J Mahaffey, E Toledo, D Tewell, J Delsing. 70 B Fabel, E Dougherty, D Toms, J Huston, J McGovern, N Faldo (GB), R Cochran, F Funk, P Jordon T Barranger, D Ogrin, E Humenik, K Gibson, N Price (Zim), D Edwards. 71 N Lancaster, B Boldt, M Bradley, B Kamm, T Sieckmann, S Pate, T Kite, H Sutton, M Donald, W Grady (Aus), S Lyle (GB), B Tway, M Dawson, C Strange, D Forsman, C DiMarco. 72 K Clearwater, J Flannery, G Kraft, M O'Meara, H Irwin, H Twitty, J Wilson, G Day, C Raulerson, J Edwards, J Cook, I Woosnam (GB), R Zokol (Can), K Perry. Selected: 73 D Feherty (GB).