John Daly: Wild thing to mild thing

He is making strides again after myriad personal problems, but, with the help of a gastric band and a former Hooters waitress, his biggest addiction now appears to be eye-dazzling trousers

The young man wearing the "Grip it and rip it" T-shirt was not happy and it had nothing to do with the wind whipping off the Irish Sea straight up those short sleeves. His mate had just informed him that in the newspapers that morning John Daly had said he did not like Guinness "because it was too strong" and that "it now takes me an hour to drink a beer anyway".

"This should say, 'Grip it and sip it'," grumbled the poor lad. "So much for the Wild Thing."

Within a few minutes, however, the shivering boy had willingly taken his place in the throng poking baseball hats under Daly's nose. Even when he is the Mild Thing, this man is a draw.

Perhaps, the biggest draw in golf after Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and certainly the biggest in the Irish Open which begins here this morning. As Daly marched towards the first tee for his lunchtime Pro-Am tee-off he was followed by at least 50 kids. The golfing "Pied Piper" perhaps. But this time around the emphasis was definitely not on "pie".

The four stones Daly has shed since having a gastric band fitted in February is just one facet of the burgeoning golf folklore that began to unfold when he was banned from the US Tour last year for what the Irish like to call his "gargling shenanigans". In fact, the two-time major winner's life had unfolded so completely that it was as flat as his back when found by police outside a Hooters in North Carolina. At that stage Daly making a successful sporting comeback seemed as likely as Daly winning "Rear of The Year (Size Zero Section)". But here we are and the miracle is afoot. John Daly is a professional golfer again. And, for once, John Daly is being depicted as a credit to that profession.

The significance of his second-place at last week's Italian Open should not be underestimated (alas, due to the conflicting Players Championship in Sawgrass it was always destined to be). What Turin witnessed was the re-emergence of a talent described by Colin Montgomerie as "one of the most raw out here".

While Daly's weight loss, his continued money troubles (the term "near bankrupt" has been used) and his new-found liking for the loud trousers and the quiet life will inevitably take the headlines, what has occurred between the ropes is as startling as what has occurred between the ears. Before the Spanish Open two weeks ago, the 43-year-old had not played competitively for four months and the last time had seen him smash a spectator's camera against a tree. Of course, the speed of his return to the podium has been a testament to all the hard work he has put in both in his private life with his new girlfriend, Anna Cladakis, and on the ranges with his new coach, Rick Smith. But perhaps it owes more to a spirit which somehow has managed to remain indefatigable despite so many comatose nights. It is a personal trait Daly has been understandably keen to stress here this week as the interminable raking over his "troubles" continues in the questioning. "I feel I'm good at comebacks, good at coming back from being written off, good when I'm backed into a corner and have to get out," he said. "I love golf and I love to play the game and be very competitive, and that's what keeps me going. I don't know if this is the last chance or not. But I feel like I've got a lot of good play in me."

Of course, it is what happens when Daly is let out of that corner when the trouble begins. In the wake of his storming 66 last Sunday, it was too tempting not to think back to what came to pass the last time he had received a runners-up cheque way back at the WGC-American Express Championship in 2005. Even allowing for the fact that €97,000 is not $750,000 (not even at these rates), or that northern Italy does not boast a hedonistic Mecca within a four-hour drive like San Francisco, the contrasting emotions surely raise so much hope. As part of a reported $60m betting spree, Daly lost £900,000 in Las Vegas that night, half of which was supposed to have disappeared down a slot machine in 30 minutes.

This time it was a quick flight to the Republic and then a "beer" which, yes, he "sipped". "Because of the 'lap-band' it can take an hour to drink a beer now," he said. The only thing that disappeared in 30 minutes in Dublin on Sunday night was his reputation.

Except it hasn't, not really, and golf should not kid itself. Lining the fairways as he partnered his three amateurs yesterday the punters still proceeded to gawp on like Victorians at their freak shows. It is an intoxicating mix of sympathy, empathy, anticipation and dread that retains their attention.

Daly might have cleaned up, shaped up and toned up, but deep down they all know that the propensity is there to blow up. Daly is ever the marketing man's dream, a no-lose showcase of pride or fall. Little wonder that so many of the European events stepped in with their invites when the obsessively PC brigade on the US Tour issued their six-month suspension order.

After Ireland comes Wentworth, and then in two weeks' time comes the European Open at the London Club. Daly was meant to be returning home then, but an expected invitation from the St Jude Classic in Memphis has yet to materialise (apparently they want him to apply). What has, however, is an offer of a start at the Wales Open.

"We'll get back to you," has been the message from his management which just highlights the fluid state of his schedule. Daly says that he likes to "play three, four, five weeks in a row" and doubts whether that is an immediate possibility in America.

"I would love to be in that Race to Dubai," he said, referring to the European Tour's inaugural season-ending $20m spectacular. "I would definitively come back over to Europe to try to get into that."

Such statements have led to excited speculation of Daly making the full-time switch across the pond, although that will not, almost certainly, be his favoured option. He knows and the PGA Tour knows, that should he return to any sort of consistency of form the opportunities to tee it up will arrive weekly.

Daly is just too damned watchable for them not to. Baltray was reminded of as much yesterday. The swing might have been granted some control by coach Smith but the backswing is still the longest in the game and the resulting gasp from the gallery is still the most jaw-dropping in the sport.

The Joseph on LSD Technicolor Dreamslacks may make him stand out even more (yesterday's was a pink, brown and orange "creation") but the day John Daly needs bright clothing to make him interesting is the day John Daly finally has discarded every inch of his wild side.

Right now, only the occasional drink, as well as the cigarettes remain from his dissolute lifestyle. "The gambling's gone, but I still got smoking," says Daly, who admits he is seeing a therapist. But whatever he claims about "this time doing it for myself", it is undeniable that he will always do it for the fans as well. And this week he has that special someone to impress. Anna is in town, having missed out on the last two stirring weeks. Yet there is a problem.

Even as a former Open champion, Daly does not feel at all comfortable on this gust-swept links and joked yesterday that if he had the chance he would take level par and sit in the press room until Sunday evening. Daly would have some stories to tell. Boy would he. But there is a new one in the writing now. Maybe the most rousing of the lot of them.

The power to rebuild him: Team behind the new Daly show

Rick Smith (coach)

Once the coach of Phil Mickelson, Smith told Daly when he began working with him last year that he "would not be a father figure". Has concentrated solely on his swing and has introduced control seemingly without compromising the power. "I'm way ahead of where I thought I would be," says Daly. "I love the way I am hitting the ball. I've never really had a teacher, but Rick has been keeping things simple."

Anna Cladakis (girlfriend)

A former Hooters waitress, and now "promotional director" Cladakis has widely been credited with keeping him out of the drunk tank. Daly has three former wives, about whom he is not always complimentary (see his song "All My Exes Have Rolexes"). Cladakis travels with Daly and helps co-ordinate appearances and interviews.

Nicholson clinic (weight loss)

Two months ago, with his weight approaching 20 stone, Daly underwent stomach surgery to have a gastric band fitted. It cost him less than $4,000 and has helped him lose 4 stone, restricting his alcohol intake to boot.

Larry Jackson (trousers)

A fashion overhaul that Daly may or may not have needed has had the desired results. Daly says that Loudmouth Golf has had record hits on their website after he brought 20 pairs of their trousers over to Europe with him and inflicted their outrageous designs on fans.

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