Among buttoned-up, Daly still free spirit In golf, on alcoholism, he holds nothing back


POTOMAC -- John Daly has missed the cut in five of his past eight starts and hasn't come close to a Top 10 finish this year, but you wouldn't know it from the crowd that followed him around the Tournament Players Club at Avenel yesterday, or the minicams that trailed him afterward.

Here for the Kemper Open, which begins today, Daly took a shortcut to the interview area. He bounded into the dining room, through the early lunch crowd, then snaked his way past the stunned kitchen staff and down a flight of stairs, where he recounted again the titanic struggle he's undergone with his personal life.

"Golf is a tough sport not to drink in," Daly said. "I played with one of the greatest guys I've ever met [in yesterday's pro-am]. He's a Miller Lite distributor. I started drinking that when I was 8."

In the staid sport of golf, filled with perfect swing planes and personalities to match, Daly is more rock star than jock. Strategic golf? Grip it and rip it. Private life? Let's talk about the alcoholism.

Daly said he hasn't had a drink since Dec. 21, 1992, but sobriety has not been serene. He was winless the following year, and his behavior was erratic as ever early in 1994, when he was suspended from the PGA Tour.

His only Top 10 finish last year came when he won the British Open, a month before the United States lost the Ryder Cup without him.

"The British Open was more of a life thing than a golf thing," Daly said. "For the first two years [of sobriety], I went through a stage of 'Can I do this sober?'. . . . After the British Open, I told myself, 'This is what you're made to do. I'm finding a new life of competition. I'm not giving up on any shots. I'm saving rounds."

The temptation has been there to tank or not sign a scorecard, like he did here three years ago, when he was disqualified. The only tournament cut Daly has made in his past four starts was at the Masters, where he blew to a 78 in the fourth round.

"I've been playing real consistently, but I haven't had any good rounds," Daly said. "It's been almost a frustrating year, the way I've been practicing hard, but shooting even or 1-over. I'm missing shots that are the difference between being in the Top 10.

"I'm hitting the ball better than I've ever hit; I'm just not getting anything out of it."

He'll try to get more with what will undoubtedly be the subject of Daly's next marketing campaign: The zero-iron.

"Wilson made me a zero-iron with no loft," Daly said. "I've never been able to hit a 3-wood, but I've found an iron, and I'll never have to try another 3-wood. I hit it for the first time today and I fell in love with it. Didn't hit it real solid on No. 10; it went 267 [yards]."

Although there's a new weapon in his bag, Daly's support system hasn't changed. He can still lean on Fuzzy Zoeller and Craig Stadler, or Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, who provides cautionary tales of how drugs ended his career as an NFL linebacker.

"Thomas said he never knew how good he could've been, because he was playing on stuff [drugs]," Daly said. "It ruined his career. I'm prolonging mine. Chi-Chi [Rodriguez] and Fuzzy say I'm going to make it to 50 since I quit drinking."

The fans hope so. Daly turned 30 last month. He's the youngest active player with two major victories, but he has only two other wins besides last year's British Open and the 1991 PGA. The galleries are there because they're waiting for him to realize his potential.

"The support comes because they've got a 15-year-old son or daughter who's been in rehab, quit doing crack or drinking, because of me," Daly said. "They know what I've been through. I've gone through a lot of stuff making it. Golf's easy compared to life for me."

NOTES: The Kemper Open will be loaded next year, when it will precede the U.S. Open, which will be held next door at Congressional Country Club. There is still the makings of a pretty good leader board this week. The 156-player field includes Corey Pavin, the reigning U.S. Open champion who won the MasterCard Colonial last week; defending champion Lee Janzen; Nick Price; Payne Stewart, and Mark O'Meara.

O'Meara is third on the winnings list with $868,468, even though he hasn't played since he won the Greater Greensboro Open on April 28. He was felled by a mysterious rash later that week and, after consulting internists and a dermatologist, discovered he had the measles. "The doctors didn't know what I had," said O'Meara, who had a 63 in the pro-am yesterday.

"Did I have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever? Was I bitten by a tick? I had to drop out of the Byron Nelson Classic because of it. My wife called me last night and said, 'You're not going to believe this; it's the measles.' All I know is it knocked me on my fanny."

Kemper facts

Where: Tournament Players Club at Avenel, Potomac

When: Today through Sunday

TV: CBS, 4-6 p.m., Saturday; 3: 30-6 p.m., Sunday

Purse: $1.5 million; $270,000 to winner

Top entrants: Chip Beck, John Daly, Fred Funk, Lee Janzen, Scott Hoch, Corey Pavin, Vijay Singh, Jeff Sluman, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange, Lanny Wadkins

L Tickets: $25 and $35. Plenty available. Call (301) 469-3737.

Pub Date: 5/23/96

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