Daly tries to keep star from dimming

JOHN EISENBERG

April 10, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The bleachers at the Augusta National practice tee filled within minutes yesterday when word circulated that John Daly, the big bopper himself, was on his way.

Such is Daly's daily effect on the game since he arrived last summer with his collection of 300-yard drives. Suddenly and finally (and in spite of a bad haircut), golf has a Michael Jordan.

The issue is whether he is up to it.

If anyone could be.

But back to the practice tee. There was an ovation when Daly arrived. A dozen other golfers, there warming up for the first round of the Masters, stopped to watch. Daly pulled out his driver and, without even taking a practice swing, began pounding home-run balls.

It was Babe Ruth taking batting practice, a show of shows. Fred Couples could only giggle. Gay Brewer turned his head and covered his ears. The crowd roared. Daly's first drive cleared a 30-foot net 260 yards away, bouncing onto a road.

"Outta here!" shouted someone in the bleachers.

Daly gave a brief, acknowledging smile, put another ball on his tee and sent it away with a smack so shattering it could qualify for a check from Blue Cross.

"Kill it, John Boy!" someone else shouted.

Jordan in spikes. Golf has wanted it for years. Needed it. A star. Someone special. Someone different. Someone not cut from the same cloth that has blanketed the American game with bland putt-o-matics you couldn't tell apart -- and didn't want to watch on TV.

John Daly is the one. No question. People want to watch him. His gallery was twice the size of anyone else's yesterday. Golf has gotten its wish. A star.

A star who has a history of drinking problems. And happens to be awfully young and inexperienced. And happens to be from a small town in Arkansas, suddenly signing endorsement deals worth a reported $7 million.

And so the issue now is whether he is up to it. Whether he can keep his star shined and buffed -- if anyone could in such circumstances.

One thing is certain: The hard part is just beginning. Living up to a legend that has flat-out exploded on him.

When he stomped up the 72nd fairway at the PGA Championship last summer, having smoked the field as the last qualifier in a 144-man field, there was little doubt he was the one. Everyone knew it. "He can be something very special," Jack Nicklaus said.

But his fame has been covered with prickles. He globe-trotted for the rest of 1991, chasing big appearance fees, and wound up so burned out he shot 87 at the World Championships. Then his former girlfriend hit him with a palimony and paternity suit. She dropped them, but it did a mean number on his head.

During the Bob Hope Classic in February, he played with Hope, Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle, and was sighted bar-hopping all over Palm Springs at night with a beer in one hand and girls on his shoulder.

He didn't make the cut, and has said he partied only to forget about the palimony mess. It wouldn't matter except that he has admitted being hospitalized three times for drinking too much whiskey before reportedly kicking the habit in the summer of 1990. He still drinks beer, saying you can't take everything away.

He arrived at the Masters amid much ballyhoo. The Jordan in spikes. But the truth is that, with his mind wandering, he has played dull golf in 1992, with one top 10 finish and five of 50th or higher in 10 starts. Not much.

But what should we expect from a kid who was just a big, raw rookie when he happened to win the PGA? A kid whose putting and short game haven't begun to catch up with his driving? Should we expect him to live up to the billing he offered at the PGA? Or is that unfair?

Daly does his best to lessen the pressure. "I'm still young out here, still learning things," he said after shooting 71 yesterday. But the lines of people always are there in his face, standing up for him at the practice tee, reaching out to shake his hand, touch him, screeching for him to hit his famous home-run balls.

Nicklaus says Daly is "at a crossroads," that he has to slow down and start playing golf for himself, not the fans. Daly shrugs. He is a friendly, uncomplicated young man with a lot of money, but his life keeps getting more complicated.

He was standing on the 10th tee during a Masters practice round the other day when a man walked up to him and handed him a legal summons. Right there on the course, reportedly a new lawsuit from his old girlfriend. Daly didn't even look at it. Just stuffed it into his golf bag.

"It's my week, I'm at the Masters," he said. "They can't mess with me this week."

?3 Jordan in cleats. Very much a work in progress.

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