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A giant surprise

John Daly turns his ship around, for at least one day

    TULSA, Okla. — Fat is in. Practice is out.
    What else should we conclude after the first round of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills?
    John Daly set foot on the course Thursday for the first time in 13 years, then plowed through 18 holes in 100-plus degree heat and humidity while smoking and draining diet sodas en route to a 67 that left him two shots off the lead.
    Tiger Woods, meanwhile, is as fit as a Green Beret. He’s played two tournaments at Southern Hills since he and Daly played in the 1994 PGA, then a practice round here just 10 days ago. He turned up at the course again at 6 a.m. Monday — after lapping the field to win the Bridgestone Invitational barely 12 hours earlier — and played another 18-hole practice round Tuesday. After all that, Woods shot a 1-over 71 in the opening round.
    Much of what remained of the afternoon was devoted to grilling Daly about how those two things happened.
    ‘‘If you didn’t play a practice round here at Southern Hills,’’ a local TV reporter asked Daly in a scolding tone, ‘‘how did you prepare for this tournament?’’
    ‘‘I’ve been playing the slots over at Cherokee Casino,’’ Daly chuckled. ‘‘Did good the first day; didn’t do too good the other day.’’
    The next reporter, referring to the conditions, wanted to know whether Daly could ‘‘survive four days of this stuff?’’
    ‘‘I grew up around this area. I’m used to kind of little valleys where you don’t get a lot of — you don’t get any air and there’s a lot of humidity and it’s tough to breathe,’’ Daly replied. ‘‘I light up a cigarette and drink some caffeine, and it actually works.’’
    A third reporter wanted to know how much weight Daly lost during his round and how much he weighed to begin with. (Clue: The media guide lists him at 5-foot-11 and 283 pounds).
    ‘‘I always weigh too much and probably didn’t lose any,’’ Daly replied, ‘‘because I didn’t drink one bit of water. I had Diet Cokes, Diet Pepsis.’’
    Listening to Daly talk reminds you how interviews might have been conducted if the late comedian Chris Farley played professional golf: Lots of fat jokes, a few more about the demons, dramas and insecurities that nip at his heels daily, and then a few more about the defenses he’s erected to cope with them. In short, the stories are sometimes sad, but always entertaining.
    The problem, as far as Daly is concerned, is that he hasn’t played well enough in a while to even be asked into the interview room. He hasn’t won a PGA tournament in three years, hasn’t finished in the top 10 at a major this century and in the ultimate embarrassment for a guy with two major wins on his resume, he hasn’t even been able to hang onto his tour card.
    And for those keeping score on the domestic front, he hasn’t fared much better.
    Besides battling chronic shoulder and rib injuries, Daly showed up at a tour stop in Memphis two months ago with a face full of scratches he said were carved by a steak knife wielded by his fourth wife, Sherrie. Her version was that Daly scratched himself to cover up his alleged sexual assault. The best that can be said about the episode is that the two finally agreed, through their lawyers, not to press criminal charges against each other.
    ‘‘How do you keep going other than I guess being used to it?’’ a reporter asked.
    ‘‘Just keep going,’’ Daly said, his voice low. ‘‘Just gotta keep on plugging and keep going.’’
    The one constant in Daly’s life has the outpouring of love from galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. Wherever the man tees it up, the crowds howl unqualified support. They see the booming drives, read the stories in the newspapers (and his autobiography) about staggering losses at the gambling tables and fierce battles with his ex-wives. They imagine he’s having more fun — and much more trouble — than they are. Each and every day.
    At the 18th, Daly cranked a 330-yard plus drive and arrived to find his ball barely 10 yards past the creek that snakes across the fairway. Every crease in his shirt and slacks, and there were plenty, was sweat-soaked. Calls of ‘‘J.D., J.D.!!!’’ rang out.
    Daly lifted his right arm slightly, slowly, and waved to acknowledge the cheers. He seemed worn out by even that small gesture.
    But then Daly knocked his approach on the green, two-putted for par and headed for the interview room. Near the end of a long, often-comical session, Daly was asked whether he let himself dream what another win at a major would mean.
    ‘‘No,’’ he said, his voice barely audible. ‘‘I’m not thinking about it.’’
    Yet as Daly walked out of the interview room, someone asked whether he was planning to go back to the casinos and play the slots.
    ‘‘Maybe your luck has changed,’’ the reporter said.
    Daly brightened.
    ‘‘It needs to.’’
    ———
    Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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