POTOMAC -- He is no longer golf's biggest hitter or its biggest draw, his spotlight eclipsed by the onslaught of Tiger Woods and his own self-destructive behavior. He is trying now not to be the PGA Tour's biggest embarrassment, either.
John Daly is one week into the second comeback of his career.
More importantly, he is three months into his second attempt at sobriety.
The first lasted four years and included two victories, most notably the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews. It ended in March, when Daly blacked out in a Florida hotel room after what he estimated was 14 straight hours of drinking.
"I couldn't have got much lower," Daly said yesterday.
Citing a back injury, Daly pulled out of The Players Championship the next day, went home to Memphis, Tenn., to drop off some clothes and drove straight through to Rancho Mirage, Calif., where he checked into the Betty Ford Clinic.
Daly stayed there for eight weeks, the first six for alcohol rehabilitation and the last two to help him get over his other addiction -- gambling. He also went on a diet that enabled him to drop 30 pounds, the result of cutting out his chocolate binges and eating after dinner.
"I feel so much healthier and stronger than I ever had before," Daly said during a news conference for this week's Kemper Open, which begins tomorrow at the TPC at Avenel. "Putting golf aside for eight weeks, I learned a lot about myself.
"I learned I don't have to hate myself. Every day I'd get up, I learned that I loved to do things for other people instead of doing things for myself. I really like the way I look and feel. I look in the mirror and say things like, 'You're not such a bad guy.' I don't have to feel miserable inside."
The circumstances surrounding Daly's return to the PGA Tour last week at the Memorial Tournament were far different from his first six years. The atmosphere was low-key and low-pressure. With the attention and expectations heaped on Woods, with whom he played the third round, Daly was barely noticed.
That could change this week, with Woods not playing in what will easily be the best field in the Kemper's 30-year history. Not that Daly, who last week finished 76th and last, figures to be in the hunt this weekend or in next week's U.S. Open at nearby Congressional Country Club.
"I'm not expecting anything with my golf for a few weeks," said Daly, who finished tied for second here five years ago and tied for 10th last year, to go along with a much-publicized disqualification in 1993. "Definitely my sobriety is the most important thing in my life."
Daly's public admission of alcoholism has not come without a price. It cost him his third marriage, though his wife, Paulette, has allowed Daly to see their daughter. It cost him the last seven years of a 10-year endorsement contract with Wilson that paid him between $1 million and $3 million annually, though he recently signed a five-year deal with Callaway Golf.
No terms have been announced, but the contract with Callaway is reported to be heavily laden with incentives that have as much to do with Daly's continued sobriety as with his return to the leader board. Daly even thought up the slogan on the company's advertising campaign for its new star client: "Keep It Straight, John."
"Sure, I was skeptical -- until I met the man," Ely Callaway, 78, the company chairman, said yesterday from his office in Carlsbad, Calif. "Only after I talked with him did I realize he had a whole new understanding of the severity of his problem and an entirely new approach to the after-care program available. That is what switched me around."
Considering that Daly was playing with new clubs and a new ball for the first time at the Memorial, Callaway came away believing even more in his company's high-profile investment.
"It was very exciting, very encouraging just to see him there playing," said Callaway, who spent the week of the Memorial with Daly in Ohio. "It wasn't more than a few weeks ago that he was pretty close to death. It was very revealing to the kind of substance and character he has behind him."
Even a third-round 80, which began Saturday and ended Monday, didn't discourage Daly.
"I got in my truck, and I was happy as I could be," said Daly. "Before if I shot 80, I'd be thinking about it for two or three days."
There are those who question whether Daly can succeed at sobriety, considering how long and hard he drank. After winning the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick as the last alternate, Daly's career skyrocketed. Like some of his monstrous drives, he was out of control.
His second marriage ended after Daly was charged with third-degree assault on his then-wife, Bettye, after an incident at their home in Colorado in December 1993. After going for treatment at a facility run by former Dallas Cowboy Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, Daly said he won for the first time sober at the 1994 BellSouth Classic.
He was suspended by the tour twice, the second time for the last three months of the 1994 season, after Daly was involved in a parking-lot altercation with the father of another player during the World Series tournament. He came back to win the British Open in 1995, but his play faltered last year.
Daly began drinking again during last year's Dutch Open, and his agent later announced that Daly was drinking "socially."
"I realized that there's no such thing [for an alcoholic]," said Daly. "I was scared of the disease. It was beating me. I always ignored it. There's no telling what could happen."
Daly said yesterday that he was drinking twice the amount that he was in 1994 and that he planned to go for treatment after this year's Masters. He never made it that far. What happened that day last March is still unclear, but Daly said, "The only thing I remember was that I fell in the kitchen."
"It's amazing that I opened up my eyes this time," said Daly, who turned 31 during his stay in rehab. "The first time, I just ignored it. Admitting your problem takes a lot of courage. If I get to feeling down, I know where to go. I've never been religious, but going to meetings is like going to church for me."
He said he is going to "three or four" Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week, and calling others in the program whenever he feels the need. Daly said he understands that being in the spotlight, even one that is not as bright as before, will make the recovery even more difficult.
"It takes a lot of courage to admit you're powerless over something," said Daly. "There's always doubt in people, because relapses are very high. It all falls back to the individual. If I ever start [drinking] again, I don't think I'll ever get through. I've had too many angels looking out for me. I've had nine lives already."
Site: TPC at Avenel (7,005 yards, par 71), Potomac
Purse: $1.5 million
Winner's share: $270,000
TV: Chs. 13, 9 (Saturday, 4-6 p.m.; Sunday, 3-6 p.m.)
Pub Date: 6/04/97