Daly's power game fits Augusta to tee

John Steadman

April 08, 1992|By John Steadman

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- That silver meteor streaking through the heavenly firmament caused immediate alarm. Even spectacular reaction came from among those on the ground and stationed in observatories.

John Daly was hitting a golf ball as if he came down from another planet.

It became a momentous moment of wonder, a country boy from Dardanelle, Ark., whose drives carried to infinity and won for him the PGA Championship and $230,000. A residual award is an invitation to the Masters tournament for the next five years.

So Daly is on the hallowed ground of the Augusta National Golf Club, preparing for his first Masters, and everything he hits is being measured by the onlookers who can't believe what they're seeing, despite the reputation he brings with him.

Those critics ready to dismiss Daly as a one-time wonder aren't being fair. There's cheap criticism that his PGA victory was a freak and that he'll never be heard from again.

But Daly, somewhat defensive, says, "People forget this is just my second year on the tour. I'm still pretty young."

After Daly won the PGA and captured the imagination of the nation with his prodigious pounding, he became a folk hero and drew enormous crowds ready to "oh" and "ah" when he air-mailed the ball to faraway places where they didn't even list the ZIP codes.

This time a year ago, with all the living legends here in Augusta, he was occupied during the same week playing in the "Mississippi Masters," the Deposit Guaranty Classic, formerly the Magnolia Classic, in dear ol' Hattiesburg, where he won $582 and finished in 74th place.

Then came his remarkable conquest in the PGA, which provided automatic playing privileges in the Masters. Daly refuses to give himself much of a chance. "I believe if I finish in the top 20 it'll be pleasing," he says. "I can't be expected to do much more."

But Jack Nicklaus, a six-time winner of the Masters, and not given to innocuous conversation, disputed Daly's low assessment of himself. "If ever there was a golf course made to order for John it's Augusta National," he said.

Daly will be able to swing from Port Arthur and not get into too much difficulty because most of the fairways are open and forgiving to mistakes. The roughs, for the most part, are carpeted with pine needles and not the jungle-like growth found on other championship courses.

Last year, Daly averaged 288.9 yards in driving distance -- which is the highest reading the PGA has recorded in the 11 years it has been tracking such statistics. What new yardage Masters milestones has he been cranking out in practice rounds before the start of tomorrow's 72-hole event?

He's handling the Augusta par-5 holes as if it's a pitch-and-putt routine. On the 555-yard second hole, his second shot to the green was with a 4-iron; a 3-iron into the 535-yard eighth; a 6-iron into the 465-yard 13th; and, of all things, an 8-iron into the 500-yard 15th.

For a comparison, Nicklaus usually goes to a 3-wood or 4-iron on the 15th, a hole made famous in 1935 when Gene Sarazen dropped a 220-yard, 4-wood for a double-eagle two when the hole was shorter by 15 yards. That's the kind of raw power Daly creates when applying club face to ball.

Since the second shots are vital to scoring effectively at Augusta, he'll have a sizable advantage using shorter irons to the greens. But then the speed of the putting surfaces are enough to make a grown man cry so Daly gives something back in an area where a delicate touch is critical to bagging birds.

To protect itself from lawsuits and to keep balls inside the practice range, the Augusta National has erected a 65-foot-high net at the end of a 260-yard expanse, to prevent Daly from driving the ball into heavily traveled Washington Road. He tried to put it over, just for the fun of conversation, but said, "It's a little too high, even for me."

Since hitting the PGA jackpot, Daly has had personal problems. His ex-fiancee filed palimony and paternity charges. But then Daly said he learned from an FBI report she was 39 and holding, not 31, as he thought, and was legally married.

He's supposed to stay out much too late, which isn't exactly breaking new ground for a professional athlete. But then John says, "Hey, I'm not perfect."

But last year, at the trophy/check presentation, he donated $30,000 of his winnings to a scholarship fund for the two children of Thomas Weaver, the fan who was killed by lightning while at Crooked Stick Country Club watching the PGA.

It was a genuine concern that motivated him to be of help to the young survivors of a man he never even knew. That kind of goodness is worthy of a nomination to the Human Kindness Hall of Fame, even if he never wins another tournament.

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