Daly big, bad and victorious in British Open

July 24, 1995|By Thomas Bonk | Thomas Bonk,Los Angeles Times

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- He's big, he's bad, he's perfectly capable of knocking the golf ball from here to Dundee, and now he's the British Open champion.

Sir John Daly? It's sure a long way from rural Arkansas, all right.

When the Royal and Ancient Golf Club officials in their starched white shirts and blue jackets gave Daly the Old Claret Jug, they probably were worried he might fill it with jelly beans or lemonade or something.

On a windy Sunday at St. Andrews, where Old Tom Morris, Bobby Jones, Harry Vardon and Walter Hagen left their mark on the most famous course in the world, Daly jumped right in the middle of history and claimed golf's oldest major title.

"To win here at St. Andrews, it's a lifetime dream for anybody," Daly said. "And mine's come true today."

Daly's margin of victory over Italy's Costantino Rocca in a four-hole playoff was small, but its magnitude was immense. A star is reborn.

Daly and Rocca tied at 6-under-par 282. One behind were Mark Brooks, England's Steve Bottomley after a 69 and third-round leader Michael Campbell of New Zealand, who was blown to a 76.

Steve Elkington and Vijay Singh were at 284, with Corey Pavin, Mark James and Bob Estes at 285.

As the wind blew and the players struggled and it looked as if there could be whitecaps on the fairways, no one beat Daly.

This is the same Daly who once joked the only thing he learned in college at Arkansas was to sign his name, who won the PGA Championship almost before anyone knew who he was and who began the year on leave of absence from the PGA Tour after admitting to a drinking problem.

But Daly plays a game that doesn't care who you are, only what you can do with a golf ball.

Forced into a playoff when Rocca rolled in a 66-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to tie him, Daly dominated the four-hole format and beat Rocca by four strokes.

Daly is the first player since Seve Ballesteros to win two major championships while younger than 30, and he and Payne Stewart are the only Americans under 40 to have won two majors.

It was Daly's first major title since his stunning PGA victory in 1991, which is momentous enough. But it's also a jarring reminder to the golf world that Big Bad John Daly is back in town.

"I've just had a problem dealing with things off the golf course," said Daly, 29, who was involved in such incidents as picking up his ball during a round, suggesting his peers were using drugs and getting into a scuffle in the parking lot with the father of a fellow player.

"I wasn't very mature. I made some stupid decisions that cost me. I'm trying my [butt] off to regain a lot of friendships out there. I'm trying to make sure I have a happy life."

Happily, he hits the golf ball a very long way.

Daly shot a final-round 71 and had a three-shot lead with three holes to go. But he three-putted the 16th for bogey, then bogeyed the 17th when he landed in the Road Bunker.

Two groups behind Daly, Rocca was the only one with a chance to catch him, but it would take a birdie on the par-4 18th.

Rocca was just off the green after his drive, but he flubbed his chip shot and he was well short of the hole. As Daly watched on television with his wife, Paulette, Rocca putted the ball straight into the hole.

Rocca raised his arms, then fell face-first, burying his head in the grass and pounding his fists.

"I hole this putt," Rocca said. "Nobody is supposed to hole that putt. I don't know how to tell you."

Daly hung his head for a moment, then headed off to the putting green. Brad Faxon stopped to encourage him. So did Bob Estes and Pavin, and suddenly Daly didn't feel so bad anymore.

"They said, 'Come on, hang in there,' " Daly said. "They must have thought I was going crazy or something."

That would have been the old Daly, he said. After all, when Daly checked into the Old Course Hotel, the first thing he did was have the mini-bar removed.

A week later, he was inspecting his name engraved on the British Open trophy.

"There's no way I would be here today if I was still drinking," he said.

Daly couldn't get to sleep until 3:30 yesterday morning, then had to fill his day until a 2:12 p.m. tee time. After dining on eggs and five chocolate-filled croissants, watching a couple of movies and playing his guitar, Daly was ready.

He tied Campbell with a 12-foot birdie putt on the par-3 eighth hole; he took the lead for good when Campbell bogeyed the sixth.

By the time Daly reached the 16th tee, he had a three-shot lead. It didn't last. He three-putted from 55 feet, missing an eight-footer for par. He dumped his second shot into the bunker at the 17th and could manage only a bogey.

Rocca saved himself at the 17th when he putted off the road. The ball bounced and stopped only four feet from the hole. He made his par.

"The road is jumping," Rocca explained. "This is luck."

Then it was bad luck to hit such an awful chip. Then it was unbelievable luck to roll in the putt to force a playoff. That's why Rocca threw himself on the ground to celebrate.

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