John Daly: When a nice guy finishes first

September 15, 1991|By Jaime Diaz | Jaime Diaz,N.Y. Times News Service

The dust is still settling from the explosion of power golf with which John Daly won the PGA championship a month ago. But while the fallout of his newfound fame is making the 25-year-old tour rookie a rich man, some of it is already old.

The star-making machinery has been grinding the private life of golf's newest hero to a halt, with the national news media shadowing him, countless business deals including an instruction video and a book on the table, and even a country song, "Long John Daly," on the charts.

"Some of it's been fun, but it's been really hard in a lot of ways," Daly said the other day from his home in Memphis, where he has been attempting to rest since taking a break from competition two weeks ago. "I expected this to be a vacation, but it turned out to be a nightmare.

"I just never realized what it's like when you go to gas stations and grocery stores and people know who you are. I haven't been left alone by anybody."

The area of Daly's life that has been most strained by all the attention has been his relationship with his fiancee, Bettye Fulford.

The couple, who have been together since last summer, had planned to marry Oct. 8 in Las Vegas, Nev., but the demands of Daly's new life brought a temporary postponement.

The naturally obliging nature that Daly demonstrated in winning the PGA was a crucial part of the chemistry that made him so attractive to even casual viewers of golf. But Daly admitted that he is finding it harder to be engaging with those who now clearly want something from him.

"I really appreciate how happy everyone is for me, but it's just that some people you can really read through," said Daly, who last year nearly had to give up the "minor league" Ben Hogan Tour because he was out of money.

"They come up all buddy-buddy, and I'm going: 'Right. Where were you when I needed you?' Those are the ones I just can't get along with."

It falls on Daly's agents at Cambridge International to protect their client from the assault while still taking advantage of having, for the moment at least, one of the hottest properties in sports.

"The hardest thing for John has been learning to say no," said John Mascatello of Cambridge. "He loves people, but this is a time when he can't let himself get exhausted."

Daly, who will play this week in the Hardee's Classic in Coal Valley, Ill., has a right to be tired just from all the heavy work he did at the PGA.

Not only did the 5-foot-11-inch, 190-pounder manage to take all the bend out of the Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind., with his 300-yard-plus drives, he also figuratively picked up and lifted an entire sport to a new level.

By performing the biggest backswing and hardest downswing ever seen from a good player and still hitting the ball down the fairway Daly altered the parameters of the possible in the game.

For all its seduction, power has always been best employed judiciously in tournament golf, and until Daly's victory, it was simply a fond fantasy that an enormously long hitter could play four rounds of a championship without succumbing to the narrow margin for error inherent in a monster swing. But Daly made it reality, and now driving ranges all over the world are

filled with golfers trying to kill the ball.

"It was a dream come true for me to see what John did," said Mike Dunaway, a perennial champion of long-driving contests, whom Daly calls the longest hitter in the world. "I've always wanted to see what a truly long hitter could do if everything was working. And John just went to another level. He took the best players in the world and I don't mean any disrespect but he made them look like little boys."

Even the most hardened observers were moved.

"Most of these big knockers can't play a lick, but this kid can," said 79-year-old Sam Snead, who burst on the golf scene in the 1930s as a rawboned long hitter.

"It was unbelievable the way he cut that course in half with his driver. I just kept wanting to see him take a belt at it.

But Snead and others are skeptical that Daly can have long-term success with his enormous swing. The natural companion of long hitting is wildness, and it's no accident that Daly is at the bottom of the tour's driving accuracy statistics, or that he is prone to high scores, like an opening-round 80 at the World Series of Golf two weeks ago.

But, consistent with the boldness he won with, Daly doesn't have any plans to cut back his swing.

"I'm not backing off unless my back goes out or something, and I've never had any back problems," he said.

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