Daly shows value of hard labour with 'best-ever' round

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The Independent Online

Get ready for the third coming of John Daly. The 35-year-old, without a victory since he beat Italy's Costantino Rocca in a play-off at the 1995 Open at St Andrews, shot a third-round 63 to move within one stroke of leader Bob Estes at the St Jude Classic on Saturday.

Estes, who began the day with a four-shot advantage, had 16 pars and only two birdies in a round of 69 to finish 17-under-par on 196. But it was Daly who stole the spotlight as he moved into a tie for second place with Scott McCarron on 197 with last night's final round to come.

"It's just one of those days that everything was really solid," said Daly of his eight-birdie, no-bogey performance. "It was probably the most solid 18 holes of golf I've played since I've been out here.

"Score-wise, I don't know if I've ever been 16 [under par]. This sort of reminds me of the first three rounds of the PGA in '91 [which he won], but I think I was 12 [under], so this is by far the best three rounds of golf I've ever played."

He has had his trials and tribulations in the past with alcohol and gambling, but the new John Daly has been preparing himself and his game for the chance to win again on the USPGA Tour. He has installed a practice green in his back garden and believes the countless hours he has worked on his game have a lot to do with his good showing in this tournament. "I think the hard work is starting to play off," Daly said. "It's great to be close, but you know, I think it would feel a hell of a lot better if I win."

Daly, who once owned a home off the 16th fairway here and still considers Memphis home for half the year, continues to lead the PGA Tour in driving, but has had only one top-10 finish all year ­ a tie for ninth at the Phoenix Open in January. He also has missed five cuts in 15 tournaments. "The last six years have been very tough, and the golf hasn't come around," he said.

This event did not seem to be the place where he would pull his game together. Daly has never finished better than a tie for 16th in 1993, missing the cut four times and being disqualified once. But he is, and always has been, the local favourite. "I just feed off the fans, like I did today," Daly said. "Man, it would be the greatest thing for me to win for them because we've had six years of hell. There's no doubt about it."

The leaderboard included two other players supposedly past their prime. Curtis Strange was alone in fourth at 12-under 201 and Britain's Nick Faldo was tied for eighth at 10-under 203.

Strange, the 46-year-old American Ryder Cup captain, has made the cut in just two of eight starts this season and is without a win since capturing his second straight US Open title in 1989. But rather than focus on his own game, which he admitted to "hating for a while," Strange was happy to see Daly back in the groove. "John seems like he's back. It seems like he's got everything under control and his game is showing it. That's great... He's still the longest. I don't care who thinks they can hit it. John Daly is still the longest off the tee. It's not really close."

Faldo, 43, has won six majors but has not won on the PGA Tour since 1997. He has finished 50th or worse in four of six starts on American soil this season.

But all eyes were on Daly, who was paired with Estes in the last group last night and Estes was relishing the challenge. "It should be a lot of fun," he said. "It will be exciting. It's probably the next best thing to playing with Tiger [Woods]."

Estes, who had a seven-shot lead over Daly at the midway point of the tournament, said he found it tough to get the ball close to the hole on Saturday.

"I had some shots that I thought would end up much closer to the hole than they did," Estes said. "It was tough to get the ball close enough to the hole to make the putts to shoot the scores we've been shooting."