Daly recaptures winning touch after nine years

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The Independent Online

Over a turbulent career, John Daly seemed to turn his alluringly simple golfing philosophy - "Grip it and rip it" - into a way of life. But the Wild Thing overcame his latest troubles to secure an improbable comeback victory in the Buick Invitational on Sunday. To rapturous acclaim at Torrey Pines, Daly again displayed his undoubted gifts as a golfer to win a three-way play-off against Chris Riley and England's Luke Donald.

Daly buried his face in his hands and sobbed into the embrace of his wife after securing his first victory on the USPGA Tour since winning the Open at St Andrews in 1995. It was his first win in an official event in the States for 10 years.

"This is the greatest," the 37-year-old Daly said. "This is sweet. There's a lot of emotion, kind of a relief. It's a wonderful feeling." Daly won with a birdie at the first extra hole but only after Riley, playing in his home town of San Diego, and Donald, a former Walker Cup star, missed short putts to continue the play-off.

When Daly won the 1991 USPGA Championship at Crooked Stick he was unknown. He was the ninth alternate for the event and drove all night to be able to tee off.

The legend of the Wild Thing was born with his aggressive big hitting on the course but the man from a small town in Arkansas, who had started drinking at the age of nine, also lived up to the sobriquet with his unpredictable behaviour off the course.

Addictions ranged from alcohol to gambling to chocolate but he conquered his demons to win the Open at the home of golf and then again to win the BMW International in Munich three years ago.

"I've never doubted I knew I could win again," he said. "I've worked too hard not to. Peter Jacobsen told me, he said no matter what happens, John, the talent never goes away. That stuck with me for a long time. I've never thought I was an underachiever. I've won two majors, and nothing will take that away. But I've never won a tournament with Tiger in the field before and that feels good."

Woods finished two strokes behind, while Phil Mickelson and Thomas Bjorn were among those a shot out of the play-off. But it is always Daly's inner turmoil that needs to be overcome first, and the latest blow descended last summer.

In July, Sherrie, Daly's fourth wife - he once said he needed three mulligans to get it right - gave birth to a son, John. Daly has two daughters by previous marriages and with Sherrie a son, Austin.

But five days later, Sherrie and her parents were indicted on federal charges of allegedly laundering more than $1.52m (£800,000) in illegal drug profits. A hearing was meant to have taken place in November but as yet the case has not come to court. Sherrie faces 20 years in prison if found guilty. The charges relate to before Daly and Sherrie met three years ago.

"Everybody goes through ups and downs in life," Daly said. "Mine just happen to be talked about a lot, which I'm very open to. Everyone goes through problems in life. It's how we deal with them. I've got great security around me.

"I've got great friends that have been with me ever since I can remember, that have stuck with me whether I've played good golf, when I've really messed up, whatever, they've been there for me. A couple of shocker friends that I'll never believe what they did to me last year, but you really find out who your true friends are, and I am a man that has found out who my true friends really are. It's taken a lot of pain, but it's good to have the ones you know you can trust around me.

"I feel like I'm a lot more mature. I have four kids now. Raising them is a blast. I think that kind of makes you more responsible, more aware of what's going on. It makes you fight. This is great. Whether I play good golf or bad golf, I know when I go back to my bus, I have little John smiling or laughing or I'm changing diapers. And Austin is always happy. And I can't wait to see my daughters.

"I don't get to see them as much as I'd like. But it's nice to win it for the children. Shynah called me yesterday from Orlando and she was almost in tears, 'Daddy, you've got to win'. I said, 'What are you doing, Shynah, are you betting the kids at school or what?' She goes, 'No. I just want you to win. I love you.' It was Valentine's Day. It's great for them when they go to school, 'My daddy won again'. That's going to feel good for them and me."

Instead of trashing hotel rooms, Daly can usually be found of an evening playing the guitar in his luxury mobile home.

He does not worry about fitness, finds it impossible to eat the right food and smoked a packet of cigarettes on the back nine on Sunday. But the noise generated by the gallery proved this "athlete" remains high in people's affections.

"All week they've just been unreal," he said of the gallery. "It's so great. The drunk ones, the sober ones, I love them all. I just love them. And they have kept me going and going. When things are bad, they still pull for me. It's a friendship that I'm very proud to have with the fans."

"I am very pleased for John," Donald said. "He adds an extra element to a tournament. He was getting a lot of chants. It was very John Daly-esque."

Both power and poise helped Daly win the play-off. While Riley and Donald were forced to lay up at the par-five 18th, Daly smashed a three-wood into the back bunker. Both his opponents pitched closer but Daly then played an exquisite bunker shot, landing the ball on top of the ridge and letting it trickle down to within four inches of the hole.

The win jumped Daly from 299th to 85th on the world rankings and extended his US Tour exemption, whih was due to run out next year, to 2006. He is not the retiring type. "I promised my wife if I won again we'd go to Hawaii," he said. "It's good to know I'm already in the Tournament of Champions next year."