James Lawton: Daly returns to the sanctuary in pursuit of crumpled dream

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As the morning sun gloriously dapples the pines, John Daly makes the philosophical gesture which has underpinned his passage through maybe the most tumultously hazardous days of any front rank, long-serving professional sportsmen.

As the morning sun gloriously dapples the pines, John Daly makes the philosophical gesture which has underpinned his passage through maybe the most tumultously hazardous days of any front rank, long-serving professional sportsmen.

He lights a cigarette, leaves it jammed between his lips, and reaches out for the driver. Beneath his vast yellow shirt fat rolls like warring hamsters but the resulting explosion is so sweetly executed it would be claimed happily by a super athlete.

The Tiger-sized gallery at the practice tee erupts, as it has been doing ever since Daly won the 1991 PGA title as a 24-year-old ninth alternate without the benefit of a single practice round at the formidable Crooked Stick course.

Some things rarely change at the modern Masters'. Arnie Palmer keeps coming back for another Last Hurrah (he is beginning to make the late Frank Sinatra seem like a master of the graceful exit) and John Daly, whenever his current form and personal disasters permit, shows up in his motorised home as the owner of a dream as intoxicating as it is crumpled.

Last year Daly's golf was not good enough. This spring his game has been in vigorous enough health for qualification here - although he wasn't sure he had made it, after ballooning to a last round 80 in the Tournament Players championship in Sawgrass - until mid-way through his drive up Interstate 95. He held on to his top 10 place in the money list and decided that, all in all, his personal life could have been in worse shape. His fourth wife Sherrie had, after all, been merely given five years probation and six months house arrest for alleged involvement in a drugs ring and an illegal gambling accusation.

Daly shrugged when he heard the news from Oxford, Mississipi. "In my life, I've seen everything and one thing I know for sure is you can't win in the federal court," he announced. "You're going against the government of the United States. You don't beat a federal court, a federal judge and the FBI - there's no way." On the face of it you might say the challenge is certainly up there with spending most of your adult life fighting one dangerous compulsion after another, smashing up motel rooms, waking up in police cells and rehab clinics, and then going out to collect a green jacket in that citadel of middle class American probity, Augusta National. But Daly, who finished third in '93, insists the fabled title is still within his powers.

"I don't even know if they have a green jacket big enough for me," he said this week, "but it would be great finding out. In life you have got to make the best of every situation, you have to keep going. I told Sherrie: 'You've just got to look out for what's ahead of you. If there's a probation, a house arrest, you've got to take that. I know you're not a convict. I know you're not guilty, but you're not going to win this one."

So what you do, according to Daly, is make the best of what you have left. He did that in '93 when he came so close to adding the Masters to the PGA title - he would win the British Open two years later - after being served divorce papers by his second wife Bettye. Four years on he missed the Masters after being admitted to a detox centre, shaking and sweating and, in the opinion of many on the pro tour, a contender only for the abyss.

"It seems there always something coming up for me during Masters week," says Daly, "but that's not an excuse to play good or bad golf. I love that I can forget about anything when I'm on this golf course, because it's so serene. It's just awesome. There's not another place like it on this earth.

"I'm not the most religous person in the world, but I think the good Lord up there has blessed me. I think I've had 12 lives. There's a reason why I'm still here and a reason why I'm here this week. I know he's only going to give me what I can handle."

Stretching that belief recently, however, was the decision of a friend from boyhood to give assistance to Daly's third wife Paulette in a custody battle over eight-year-old Sierra. Daly is so upset by the betrayal he intends to frame the offending letter to the court and hang it up on a wall. "It will remind me to always keep a look-out," said Daly.

This week, though, he will operate in a much warmer ambience. Fuzzy Zoeller, a former Masters' winner, is spending time with Daly on and off the course, and sharing the motor home is another friend, song-writer Johnny Lee."We could have some great days," he says. But then what's a great day for John Daly? Playing Augusta for one thing. Not having the shakes is also good, and then not stepping into the blinding sun from a trashed motel-room. Throw in a green jacket and Daly reckons he could withstand anything - and certainly a little spell of house arrest.