Commentary

Tempered expectations with Daly

Updated: August 9, 2012, 6:54 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- His pants look like an Austin Powers movie. His haircut belongs in the Mullet Hall of Fame. His idea of health food is sucking down diet sodas and firing up Marlboros.

Some things never change, like John Daly not giving a damn what you think. If he did, he wouldn't wear orange pants with geometric patterns so loud that Curiosity can see them from Mars. He wouldn't say, as he cupped a cigarette with his left hand, "If I play good here, it doesn't really matter to me. If I play bad, it doesn't matter to me."

Carl Pettersson leads the PGA Championship after the first round, but Daly leads in Most Double Takes Caused. His 4-under-par 68, which puts him just 2 strokes behind Pettersson, is as unexpected as a snow squall here.

[+] EnlargeJohn Daly
AP Photo/John RaouxLong John Daly might seem like the ultimate long shot this week at Kiawah Island. Then again, wasn't that exactly what he was when he won the PGA Championship in 1991 at Crooked Stick or in 1995 when he captured the Open Championship at St. Andrews?

Seriously, John Daly? The guy who has either missed the cut or withdrawn from the PGA Championship 14 of the last 17 times? The guy whose best finish at this major since winning it in 1991 is a T-29?

But here he is, sort of in contention. You don't want to get too excited about Daly after one day because he has a habit of cliff-diving down a leaderboard. But wouldn't it be something if he didn't?

There's no need to go through all the accident reports of Daly's car wreck of a life. You can pretty much sum it up by saying he ate, drank, gambled, married and quit too much. He is a living, breathing Dr. Phil episode.

"It's just like my golf game," Daly said Thursday. "It is up and down, but so is my life and everybody's life is up and down. It's how we battle to get through it and I think people relate to that."

Daly's mother died last November, the same week he walked off the course during the opening round of the Australian Open after pumping seven balls into the water on the 11th hole. He was later ripped by tournament officials for his behavior.

"That's when, kind of, some people bashed me when they didn't know the whole story," said Daly.

That's because the story never ends with Daly. There's always a new epilogue.

Daly, ranked 219th in the world, hasn't earned a PGA Tour card since 2006. He plays on the European Tour (one top-10 finish this season) and holds his breath for sponsor's exemptions over here. He gets a lifetime pass to play at the PGA Championship and an exemption until he's 60 at the Open Championship, which he won in 1995.

He arrived at the Ocean Course this week fresh from a recent T-5 at the Reno-Tahoe Open. It was his first PGA Tour top-10 finish in the past seven years.

"I want to be here, playing our tour," said Daly. "I want to be like everybody else in the top 50 [of the world rankings] and getting that free money in the World Golf Championships and be in all the majors and getting sponsors -- big, big sponsors and stuff like that."

But Daly isn't like anybody else in the top 50. He isn't like anybody else in the top 1,050. He is his own solar system with his own, uh, interesting sensibilities.

Admit it: You still look for his name in the weekly scores. Him, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and maybe Bubba Watson, right? Daly is a golf guilty pleasure.

His round of 68 caught the attention of Woods, a noted scoreboard watcher. He even said he's rooting for Daly.

"Always have," said Woods.

They first played together when Woods was 13 and Daly was 23. He remembers Daly hitting a ball so hard that day that it was disfigured and had to be taken out of play.

"I've never seen anybody hit the ball that hard," said Woods.

That was Daly. That's still Daly. On his golf bag are his sponsors' logos, his two major victories and, of course, his signature saying: Grip It N' Rip It.

Daly, now 46, does everything big. Big successes. Big failures.

"He's always been great to me over the years," said Woods. "I have always rooted for him. I have always been a John Daly fan and a friend."

[+] EnlargeJohn Daly
Courtesy LoudMouth GolfJohn Daly's never bashful when it comes to his Loudmouth Golf clothing and Friday's ensemble, above, will not disappoint.

Daly had lots of friends on Thursday. His galleries at the Ocean Course began to grow in number after the turn, when Daly got to 2 under. By the 18th hole, they were shouting after every shot, even complimenting him on his fashion choices. (He'll wear something even gaudier on Friday, but this time for a cause and with a slogan -- "Don't Fear The Finger" -- to promote prostate cancer screening procedures.)

He did a post-round TV interview. A satellite radio interview. A mosh pit session with everyone else. He seemed content.

"Everything is just perfect outside the ropes in my life, so I can concentrate on golf," said Daly. "I think more importantly, my mind is right to give me a chance. … I'm just kind of loosey-goosey out there and it just feels good."

Good enough that his caddie, Peter Van Der Riet, chided a reporter who asked if he was surprised by Daly's performance.

"I'm not surprised at all," said Van Der Riet. "I'll be surprised if he doesn't win one shortly."

Or as Daly's longtime girlfriend Anna Cladakis said as they made their way to the clubhouse for lunch: "His frame of mind is better because he had all these pieces that he was juggling. Now everything's falling into place. … It seems like everything's flowing smooth and perfect."

For at least one day it was. With Daly, anything is possible.

Maybe even a win.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter