John Daly at The Open 2015: Twenty years on, Long John's artist touch still wows a crowd

 

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The Independent Online

The Mullet is back. Before Tiger Woods, there was John Daly. People are in awe  of Tiger – or at least they were. But people loved Big John in his pomp – still do in his plump.

The champion golfer of the year when the Open was held here at St Andrews in 1995 still pulls a crowd even though he’s 49 years old, that bottle-bleached Chris Waddle-style hairstyle is more yellow stained from cigarette smoke these days and his belly wobbles like a jelly trying to escape over his belt buckle.

More junk food enthusiast than gym junkie, Daly has never been an athlete in the Dustin Johnson mould. But what he has is raw jaw-dropping talent. He was the original grip it and rip it beast with a driver. Between 1991 and 2002 he was the PGA Tour’s longest hitter in 11 of 12 years. His swing is still fast and loosey-goosey. No science labs have analysed his swing path and torque and launch angle statistics. Daly is an artist.

He’s lost a few yards off the tee over the years like an ageing footballer loses his pace, but Long John still gives the big stick a hefty clout. Back in 1995, he drove his ball so far off the 18th tee that it bounced back into play off the steps that lead to the R&A clubhouse. On Friday he managed to reach the bowl of the Valley of Sin, 15 yards short of the green.

Following the morning storms that caused a delay of three hours and 14 minutes, someone with a childish sense of humour floated a yellow bath duck in the lake that filled the hollow. On Tuesday evening, Daly attended the Champions’ Dinner in the ancient clubhouse. In the team photograph of grey suits and ties, Daly looked fabulously ridiculous in a red-and-white chequerboard jacket and white T-shirt emblazoned with a rooster catching a ball, the logo of his beloved St Louis Cardinals baseball team. Daly really doesn’t give a yellow duck what the Blazers think of him.

He gave his fans a blast from the past in the first round at the Old Course – a place he calls his second home – firing home six birdies. Unfortunately he reminded them of the present with five bogeys for a one-under-par 71. Not bad for an opening salvo, though.

He was walking to stand still in the gusting 30mph wind. After a bogey at the second, his round sounded like that old Pearl & Dean cinema theme: par-par-par-par-par-par-par-par. Thirteen pars in a row until he bogeyed the tough 16th and 17th for the second day in a row. He rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt at the last with the air of a man who was late for a lunch reservation. “Oh yees, love you maaan,” came an American cry from the crowd. Daly puffed on his cigarette and just about raised enough energy to raise his hand in the air to thank the spectators for their support.

 

When the players were allowed out to warm up after the storm delay, Daly was slapping seven-irons on the range. He tossed a cigarette on to the ground in front of his ball then whacked it, along with the ball, into the feisty Fife wind. That’s one way to put out a cigarette. Or maybe it’s to help with his alignment, a new training aid DVD opportunity: “How To Smoke Your Irons Like John Daly”.

Daly normally induces migraines in his fans by sporting his brightly coloured Loudmouth trousers that look like they could have been designed by children given fluorescent pens after eating too much chocolate cake. But on Friday he was all in black. Possibly in mourning for the demise of Tiger’s game but probably just the colour of his waterproof suit. Sadly not as memorable as that green windcheater with the arms cut off that he wore when he won the Claret Jug.

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Back in the days before Tigermania caused a security rethink, Daly wandered out with the Claret Jug for a photoshoot on the Swilcan Bridge. He handed the priceless silver trophy to any drunken fan that wanted it for a snap of them holding it aloft. The R&A Blazers were having cardiac arrests. Daly remembers it well. “It’s all still in my head,” he said. “Those pictures always come back, especially during the week of the British Open. Even more so this year. I’ll always remember it. It was just cool to come out on top after the play-off in ’95. I just love this place whether I play good or bad,” he said. “It’s my favourite course.”

While Daly’s era was snuffed out mostly by his own addictions to booze, gambling and divorce (he has written a song called “All My Exes Wear Rolexes”), his successor as the People’s Champion in the Tiger era was the clean cut, corporate dream, say-all-the-right-things Phil Mickelson. The 2013 Open Champion at Muirfield is now also a lover of links golf. Well, he would say that now, wouldn’t he?

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The 45-year-old waxed lyrical about St Andrews, too. “The more you play it, the more you appreciate its greatness,” he said. “I fell in love with it early on because I had a chance the first four or five times I played here to have different wind each time.” Mickelson is a wind expert. That’s why he’s a popular pro-am partner with blue-chip movers and shakers. He’s corporate America’s dream ticket. Daly is the nightmare. Imagine Mickelson driving balls off beer bottles. 

After a two-under-par first round, Mickelson climbed the leaderboard to five under par after three birdies in 10 holes of his second round on Friday. He was in the hunt for a second Claret Jug. But one thing he and Daly have in common is the habit of dropping in a blow-up hole. Mickelson double-bogeyed the par-three 11th to slip back into the pack. He finished at two under par.

Mickelson and Daly really are from opposite sides of the street but maybe they have one thing in common. Daly loves beer; Mickelson loves red wine. They could go to the pub together in St Andrews. They could do with a stiff drink after two tough days on the links.

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