STERLING, VA. — The question, from a pre-teen who has been credentialed by the PGA Tour as the tournament's "junior reporter" before the recent KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Trump National Golf Club, caught John Daly off-guard.
"How did you get into golf and what motivated you to go and practice as a kid and then through all these years?" she asked in the interview room.
Looking at his audience, most of whom are familiar with his career if not his childhood, Daly talks about how he learned the game by picking golf balls from their watery grave, then hitting practice shots on a baseball field near his family's home and eventually watching a golf instructional video — or "cartoon" as Daly called it — that featured the legendary Jack Nicklaus.
It began when Daly was 4.
"I wasn't allowed to play on our little nine-hole golf course in Dardanelle, Arkansas," Daly recalled. "They would let me wade in the ponds. I got to sell the good balls. I had to keep the bad ones. They wouldn't take the bad ones. Then we lived on a baseball field, so I learned how to play kind of on a baseball field. Hit cuts to the right, straight shots over center field and hooks down the third base line, flops to the pitcher's mound. Pitch-and-runs to first, second and third base."
"I learned through the Jack Nicklaus Lesson Tee, the cartoon," said Daly, whose grip-it-and-rip-it swing bears little resemblance to Nicklaus', perhaps except for the end result. "Back then, it was 1970 or '69 when it came out. Learned the grip that way and everything in the cartoon. … So that's kind of how it all started for me."
More than four decades later, Daly still relies on those boyhood memories. If there was something lacking back then, it's what is often still missing now in his rookie season on the PGA Tour Champions. Just as Daly never figured out how to putt on that bumpy baseball field back home in Arkansas, he's still struggling to master what many say remains the most essential part of the game.
Every so often, Daly will bury enough putts to win a tournament, as he did as the ninth and last alternate winning the 1991 PGA Championship and then as one of the PGA Tour's rising — and controversial — stars four years later winning The British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Coming into the Constellation Senior Players Championship, which begins Thursday at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, the now 51-year-old Daly is still searching for that consistent stroke to help make his main asset as a golfer — the ability to hit a ball farther off the tee than any of his fellow competitors — pay dividends.
Recalling a conversation he had with former PGA champion and longtime television analyst Lanny Wadkins, Daly said, "I could go out and hit 18 greens and shoot even par. I was never the best putter out there. One year … I think I led the stats in putting (he was actually fourth). But other than that, I was always at best maybe 70th.
"I've always been a good ball-striker, but if you're not a great putter, you're not going to win a lot. … I know the way I hit the ball if I putt average or just a little above average, I'm going to have a great round. But if I don't putt at least [average], it's not going to be a good round."
Daly said he has tinkered with his putting for years — "I tried different grips, I tried different lengths, I tried different putters," he said in May — but eventually he has always returned to what he learned as a kid. Or what he didn't learn.
"It's the only way I know how," he said. "I can't dwell on the past, that I haven't won a lot, but anytime I didn't play good was mainly because I didn't putt very good."
There is also something else Daly doesn't seem to dwell on — his off-course issues involving excessive drinking and gambling, as well as allegations of domestic abuse that often seemed to get in the way of, and sometimes derailed, what started out as such a promising career.
When he turned 50 last year to become eligible for the PGA Tour Champions, Daly told USA Today, "A lot of my friends said I'd never make it 50. I beat a lot of odds."
Now, with his personal life finally settled and his admitted addictions seemingly under control, Daly is trying to develop a bit more consistency than he had when he was younger. Hampered by a shoulder injury that has caused him to miss a few tournaments this year, including the recent U.S. Senior Open, Daly comes to Baltimore hoping to build on his victory at the Insperity Invitational in May, his first win on any tour since the 2004 Buick Invitational.
"It's hard to win anywhere," Daly said before the Senior PGA Championship, which he finished tied for 17th despite playing with a bad shoulder. "Where the fewer guys that we do have out here, all of them their short games are so incredible it makes it tough to win. But it felt great [to win]. There's nothing like winning. It doesn't happen often for a lot of us. Some guys have been on this tour for five, six, seven years and haven't won, and kind of get the monkey off the back and hopefully feed on the confidence of it."
Rocco Mediate, who has won three times since joining the PGA Tour Champions in 2013, said Daly's still-extraordinary length (a tour-leading average drive of 300.6 yards, which would still rank in the top 25 on the regular tour) could give him an advantage as the rest of his game rounds into shape.
"I wasn't surprised," Mediate said of Daly's first win on the PGA Tour Champions. "I was surprised it took him that long. When he's hitting it 80 yards past you, I'm going, 'Oh my God, I wish I could be up there like once.' Now that he's found his stride, he could do some crazy things."
Winning the next major on the PGA Tour Champions is not out of the question. Seemingly recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out of the recent U.S. Senior Open — he played in the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic and missed the cut this past week — Daly's length could make him one of the favorites at Caves Valley.
Daly will certainly be one of the crowd favorites in Baltimore. Regardless of his inconsistent results, and off-course problems, Daly has long been one of golf's most popular players. Many now come to follow Daly having made a purchase from his line of Loudmouth pants.
Asked to explain why he has so many fans, Daly said, "I think because I don't have many skeletons in my closet. I'm a guy that always told them when I screw up. I screw up and I admit and I go on. I don't hide anything. There's just nothing to hide with me. … I'm not one of those guys that's going to lie to anybody about what's going on in my life. I think it takes the pressure off of not having to look back or anything."