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Daly: Memories, Regret and a 68

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. - The name blows out of the past on the warm wind, whipping up memories and regret.

John Daly is high on a scoreboard in a major, and we are confronted with the joy and pain - mostly pain - of a career that spun out of control. Of a career that is a curiosity.

Daly shot a 4-under-par 68 Thursday in the first round of the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course. We hesitate to get too excited, because after all it is only one round and because it is John Daly, who on a golf course or off has shown a frightening ability to mess things up.

Yet there he was, two off lead, one behind Rory McIlroy, one ahead of Tiger Woods, gripping and ripping, and at 46 talking like he was maybe 36 - or even 26 - and hadn't been trapped in a world too full of alcohol and divorces.

The fans love him. They've always loved him, when they didn't pity him. He could knock a golf ball halfway from South Carolina to St. Andrews, the course where he won the 1995 British Open.

He could explode like an over-filled balloon, acting like a 13-year-old as he stomped off greens and fairways. And, man, he could drink, and as we know, golf and drink go together. What other sport has a "19th hole"?

He was, and is, the rough-hewn, bawdy unsophisticate who contrasted with the country club set, the guy at whom people in cutoffs and jeans could shout, "Go ‘git ‘em, John. Let's have a Bud."

What Daly, in this tournament because of a lifetime exemption given to winners - he was the surprise champion as ninth alternate in 1991 - would have is the opportunity to regain playing privileges on the PGA Tour.

He usually gets into regular tournaments on either side of the Atlantic only through invitations from sponsors. He has played in 10 events in the U.S., including last weekend's Reno-Tahoe Open, and eight on the European Tour. He wants to play mostly in America, getting back his card he lost five years ago.

"I'm looking forward to being 50,'' said Daly, "and playing the senior (Champions) tour. I enjoy the European Tour, but the travel is killing my body."

The part the booze didn't kill.

"It's like my golf game,'' Daly said Thursday when asked about his popularity. "It is up and down. But so is my life. But everybody's life is up and down."

Not like John Daly's life. The suspensions, the gambling, the arrest for public drunkenness, the four marriages, the battles with his wives, the retailing of products from his motor home outside Augusta National. Window dressing, some might label it, for someone who always could play a mean game of golf and deep down doesn't have a malicious bone in his body.

"I've never been afraid to tell you the truth about myself,'' Daly said more than once. "That's me."

There's less of the old Daly since, after bulging up to more than 350 pounds, he underwent lap-band surgery in 2009. He's down 100 pounds or so, and with his hair, now a whitish blond, flapping in the breeze, from a distance has a resemblance to the current-day Bill Clinton.

"You just try and thrive on the good things,'' said Daly. "My mind is right to give me a chance. If I make a double (bogey), who cares?"

He was the one who cared, and in response he would intentionally smash a ball into the Irish Sea, as he did one British Open at Turnberry, or blast one ball after another out of a bunker at the left side of Pebble Beach's 18th at the 2000 U.S. Open.

"If I play good here,'' said Daly, trying to show he has mellowed, "it doesn't really matter to me. If I play bad, it doesn't matter to me. But I want to play good."

Daly's contradictory nature is on display. He wants his Tour card, which he can reacquire through excellent play. Then he tells us he's oblivious to how he plays. Does that make sense?

"I've been playing good, just trying to keep it at my own pace, just be myself and play golf," said Daly, who tied for fifth last week. "It's been building up the last five or six weeks. When I get on a little run, six, seven weeks in a row, I feel like I have a better chance of playing well, making cuts."

And not making a spectacle of himself. In the Australian Open last November, he was upset with a ruling and left the course. Only later was it learned his mother had died that week, and his family persuaded him to stay and play, delaying the funeral.

"But that was a rough week,'' he explained. "People bashed me when they didn't know the whole story."

The whole story on John Daly never may be told.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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