Golf: Daly bred for the long-distance drive: The big hitter is sizing up the World Match Play Championship, starting today. Tim Glover on a man in recovery

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WHEN Jack Nicklaus shot 67 in the first round of the Masters in April he was asked how this was possible for a man of 53. 'Age has nothing to do with it,' Nicklaus said. 'If you're in shape you can play. Today's players are hitting the gym after every round, working out, eating the right foods.'

In his rented room in Augusta, John Daly yelled at the television screen: 'That's right, Jack. That's very true. Here I am sitting with my 104th diet Coke and my fifth goddam bag of M & Ms, looking like a big bag of . . . yeah Jack, let me light up another cigarette.' Daly shot 70 in the first round of the Masters and finished joint third. Nicklaus was joint 27th.

There is something else the Wild Thing has over the Golden Bear. Daly is the only player on the US Tour who draws bigger crowds than Nicklaus and he is in a position to draw huge sums of money, and all on the back of one outrageous victory, an exaggerated swing and a ludicrous haircut. And a gross reputation. The Wild Thing thing did not come from consuming soft drinks and eating candy.

A line was that Daly would have to beat Jack Daniel's before he could beat Jack Nicklaus, although he was an intimate friend of the former when he beat the latter, and everybody else, in the US PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Indiana. This is the one where he was ninth reserve, drove through the night and straightened out Crooked Stick with more long-distance driving. He teed the ball up, his caddie said 'Kill]' and Daly left the field for dead. 'It's hard to believe anybody can swing the club back quite that far without over-using his body,' Nicklaus observed. Daly was 25 and the embodiment of the Great American Dream. And the Great American Disaster.

'Seems I used to do everything like I was on a mission,' Daly told The Golfer magazine. 'If it was alcohol I wanted to drink till I couldn't see straight. If it was golf I wanted to beat everybody's brains out. It's not anybody's fault. I was stubborn as hell. I had no direction.'

From the age of seven, Daly had an adult set of Jack Nicklaus McGregors. He learnt big hitting when he took golf balls to a baseball diamond and tried to smash them over the backstops.

He also learnt to drink. He had a glass of Muscadet when he was eight. 'My brother and I had to step on my father's grapes so we thought we might as well have some. I haven't touched wine since.' He progressed to Jack Daniel's, which is something else Jim Daly had in the house. 'It was always 'let's see what dad has in the cupboard'. ' A Daniel's den. His golf got him a scholarship to the University of Arkansas. He weighed in at 230lb.

Daly's staple diet became diet Coke, bourbon, black coffee and Marlboros. The diet worked. 'Everybody told me to stop drinking beer,' Daly said. His first marriage, at 21, to the daughter of a wealthy family in Arkansas, lasted two years. On the day of his divorce Daly was playing in South Africa and he went wild in his hotel room. He won the tournament with a broken little finger.

There were nights when he would sleep in the clubhouse car park so he would not miss his tee time. In Falmouth, Maine, three years ago, he drank so much he fell into a coma and a friend drove him to hospital. If there were times on the tee when he saw two balls instead of one he still made a living and qualified for the US Tour in 1990. A year later came Crooked Stick and Daly's planet was in orbit.

'Other guys were in bars socially,' Daly said. 'I was there professionally. The hardest thing was that I had to make decisions so quickly, more than most people do in a lifetime. There were a lot of bad decisions.' Daly had a tempestuous relationship with a hotel executive called Bettye. She said she was 29 and divorced. She was 37 and married. She got divorced in 1991 and she and Daly had a daughter, Shynah Hale. Employing Marvin Mitchelson, she sued Daly for palimony. When she dropped the suit they married and moved to sleepy Castle Rock, Colorado. They had a little Christmas party last year which ended with the arrival of the police. They say he pushed his wife against a wall and pulled her hair. Daly admits that he 'killed' his house. He even smashed the glass- encased set of golf clubs he used to win the US PGA and put a blood- spattered fist through a wall. Bettye refused to press charges but the police did.

At 11.30pm on 21 December at a bar called Hooters in Little Rock, Arkansas, Daly had one last drink. He remembers it as well as he remembers his first. 'Dallas beat Atlanta,' he recalls. He drove back to Colorado and pleaded not guilty to charges of battery and harassment. Deane Beman, the US Tour commissioner, told Daly that if he did not seek professional help he would probably be suspended. The Tour has substance abuse guidelines. Daly became a patient at Sierra Tucson, an addiction treatment centre. Part of the therapy was that he was encouraged to release his rage by banging a club against a block of foam.

After plea bargaining to harassment, he accepted a two-year probation and agreed to work with a former Dallas Cowboy, Thomas 'Hollywood' Henderson, on addiction recovery. He has moved to Orlando, Florida, and has separated from his wife. 'I've got a rule,' he said. 'I don't drink while I'm sober.' This is a line from Henderson's book, Out of Control.

Earlier this year Daly met Paulette, a slip of a girl who has accompanied him on his current voyage to Britain. At St Andrews, where Daly won pounds 100,000 as a member of the victorious US team in the Alfred Dunhill Cup, she caught a cold. While Daly sat, cross-legged, inside the recorder's hut, eating a hamburger and drinking a Coke, she decided to return to the hotel. 'Give him a big kiss from me,' she told Daly's caddie. Daly did not please everybody. He got into the habit of driving the 354-yard 18th green on the Old Course while others were still putting out.

It was Daly's first appearance in an American team (he celebrated with chocolate cake and ice-cream) and today he has a tilt at the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth. Daly may have stopped drinking but he has not stopped talking about it. 'Only two months to get through the first year and they say that's the toughest. I knew the toughest thing was going to be my putting. When I had a good buzz from drink or whatever I could putt real well.'

This season he was the 167th worst putter on the US Tour. 'My body is going through changes. One day I wake up in a great mood, the next it's terrible. I have more headaches than when I had a drink. I used to never get a cold, never feel pain. It's weird.' Cold turkey? 'Yes,' he replied, but his manager did not like the question. They say that Daly's earning powers are of the calibre of Nick Faldo and Greg Norman and we are not talking M & M peanuts. When he won the US PGA he donated a sizeable chunk of his winnings to the family of a man who was killed by lightning during the tournament. Daly may have been wrecked but he was also recklessly generous.

Daly describes this year as 'horrible'. 'I'm going through so much other stuff. I've played crap. My first goal is to get to 21 December and then have a good Christmas. I haven't had one in five years.' John Daly said he wanted to be remembered as 'a good country boy who played golf'. Fat chance.

(Photograph omitted)