John Daly on the upswing

Daly could make the playoffs with a good performance in Greensboro this week. AP Photo/Chris Carlson

In 1990, I was a high school golfer in the gallery at the Macon (Ga.) Open in the inaugural year of the Web.Com Tour. The star attraction on the range that April week at the River North Country Club was a 25-year-old kid named John Daly who had spent some time playing in South Africa, amongst other places, after turning pro out of the University of Arkansas in 1987.

Daly was already very well-known by then for his booming drives, and he didn't mind showing off this prowess to peers and spectators. If you happened to pass by him on the range, you had to pause for a minute to witness that long, rhythmic golf swing that produced a beautiful, soaring trajectory with every club.

Those of us who had been lucky enough to see the legend of Daly weren't surprised that next year when he overpowered Crooked Stick to take the '91 PGA Championship. He had a special gift and he knew it.

Twenty-two years later, through bad marriages, alcohol addiction, gambling debts, weight problems and struggles with his game, the 46-year-old five-time PGA Tour winner still clings to that special gift. And through odds that might have led a lesser man to the path of retirement or to a season full of corporate junkets, the Arkansas native is still grinding his way around golf courses all over the world with the hope that new glories will come with a made cut, a top 10 or even a win.

This week Daly is at the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., where after a T-5 in Reno and a T-18 at the PGA he has an opportunity with a good performance to make it into the FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin on Aug. 23 in the Barclays on Long Island, N.Y., at the Bethpage Black Course.
Daly is 137th in the standings and needs to get inside the top 125 by the end of the Wyndham to make into the field at Bethpage.

This won't be his last chance to earn a spot in the FedEx Cup playoffs. He still has four more years before he is eligible for the Champions Tour, but it's getting late in a regular-tour career that's had more valleys than peaks.

For all his showmanship, repertoire with the fans and respect from fellow players, Daly only has past champion's status on the tour. His wins at the PGA and the '95 Open Championship give him an automatic spot into those events, but mostly he depends on sponsors' exemptions to fill his U.S. schedule. He writes letters to sponsors, reminding them that the legend lives.

A good week in Greensboro could put the letter-writing campaigns to a halt for a while.

To get to this point, Daly has needed a close group of advisors and supporters. When you've led his life, you have gone through a lot of people, some good and some bad. His present team includes his girlfriend Anna Cladakis, his longtime pal and caddie Peter Van Der Riet and his swing coach Rick Smith.

Smith, who has most notably worked with Phil Mickelson, Rocco Mediate and Lee Janzen, has been helping Daly for about four years. He is the first to remind you that behind all of Daly's baggage is one of the most talented players to ever grace the planet.

"John's goal was to get his life straight," Smith said. Daly hasn't had a drink in four years. He says his life is so much better. It's hard to keep a guy like that down.

"He has never given up, though there might have been outside influences that were going to make him give it up. He's worked hard, and it's nice to finally see him putting up some scores. Obviously, you have to walk before you run. And he's walking a good walk right now."

In 2009, Daly had lap band surgery that helped him lose more than 100 pounds. He looked very svelte with his new body and flamboyant clothes, but he wasn't the same old John.

In past years, a number of players, including Mark Calcavecchia, David Duval and more recently Carl Pettersson, have lost tremendous amounts of weight, only to find that they felt much better with a few extra pounds, more like the men who won tournaments with a little fat in the midsection.

"John is healthy now," Smith said. "He went up and down with his weight, and now I think he's at a healthy playing weight. He feels good, which gives him more strength and flexibility.

"After his lap band surgery, he overdid it. He lost a lot of strength and mental focus, and he's found this happy medium in his body where I think he is strong enough to make it through four rounds. He looked good with the band surgery but he didn't feel great."

That outrageous length that wowed us more than 20 years ago is still there, and so are the soft hands around the green. Daly is only ranked 13th in driving distance with a 303.8-yard average, but he can find the distance when he needs it.

And he still has all the shots. Smith plays a game with Daly that he's used with all of his students over the years in which he will tell Daly what shot to hit when he's at the top of his backswing. In his prime, Daly didn't curve the ball as much as Bubba Watson does today, but he shares the lefty's savant-like ability with the golf ball.

"All the stars are aligning for John," Smith said. "It's going to be interesting to watch. Because you know with John it's all or nothing."