John Daly, a Humana Challenge attraction, remains a magnet for fans

John Daly, who'll play in Humana Challenge in Palm Springs area, remains a magnet for golf fans

Golf fans are in for a treat this weekend at the Humana Challenge. John Daly is in the house. Starting Thursday, the Palm Springs area will have its own Desert Fox.

The show could last all the way to Sunday. It could even include an awards ceremony after the 72nd hole. Or, if something unsatisfactory takes place, it could last until the 11th hole Thursday.

That's what makes Daly such an attraction. You never know. But you never stop watching.

He is 48 now, says he's happy as a clam, especially "if I can hit my irons better." He stands and chats near the 18th green on a quiet Wednesday afternoon. He is as inconspicuous as anybody can be with snowball white hair, and red and white pants. The ever-present cigarette is lit. All that's missing is the Diet Coke.

Fans draw to him as if he is magnetized. A disabled youngster gets an autograph and enough attention to bring a huge smile and quick camera clicks from Mom. There are the ever-present "Hogs" fans." They too get special treatment. Daly is, after all, from Arkansas, although he has been described over the years by various sports page typists as "being from the moon."

He never fails to appreciate a fan base that has never left him, even when his golf game did.

"These people see me as somebody who puts his pants on the same way they do," he says. "I never lied to them. I never lied to the media. If I screwed up, I fessed up."

Indeed he has. And there have been plenty of opportunities.

But the drinking, carousing and on-course blowups seem to be things of the past. Since Daly came out of nowhere to win the 1991 PGA title — he got into the tournament as the ninth alternate — there have been handfuls of new and reformed John Dalys.

Now, it seems, the passing out in front of a Hooters is history. So are angry marches off golf courses after hitting half a dozen balls into the water in anger.

"I've got three healthy kids," he says, "and I'm getting healthy, finally. I wouldn't trade anything now."

Not that he goes out of his way to completely distance himself from the image.

He is a spokesman, and walking ad, for the clothing line that brings us red, white and purple with pink stripes. It is called Loudmouth clothing. His shirt advertises It is for golf equipment deals, not a commentary on some of his life.

Arnold Palmer isn't the only golfer with a drink named after him. A "John Daly" is sweet tea, lemonade and vodka. His promotional phrase for it is "Grip it and sip it."

He is in the Humana field on a sponsor's exemption. He has lived on those much of the last eight or nine years. He still has spots in the PGA and the British Open because of his victories in those majors in 1991 and 1995, respectively.

He will be back at St. Andrews this summer. It is not only the birthplace of golf and the scene of Daly's second major, but also the place where Daly overcame the ultimate emotional roller coaster and further established his playing credentials.

He had finished his round with a one-shot lead on Costantino Rocca, who had driven his ball near the green on the legendary par-four 18th that features the picturesque red stone building looming across the street.

Then Rocca did the unthinkable. Twice.

He flubbed his second shot, a relatively easy pitch, and faced a 60-foot birdie putt to tie Daly. He sank it and collapsed to the ground.

Daly could have done many things without surprising the doubters. He could have bemoaned his fate, felt sorry for himself and blown his chance. He could have grabbed a beer and started swigging. Or he could have gone out and won the four-hole playoff, which he did.

"I love St. Andrews," he says. "Can't wait to get back."

He recently won a European-tour sanctioned pro-am tournament in Turkey, the Beko Classic.

"It was just a three-day event," he says, "but everybody in it could play. Darren Clarke [former British Open winner] played. It felt good to win something."

He says he still hits the ball 300 yards off the tee, and is well aware that long ball remains part of the attraction for the fans. That distance has been a blessing and a curse. One year, Daly led the PGA Tour with an average driving distance of 300 yards and was 185th in fairways hit.

"I still hit it about 300," he says, adding quickly, in his fun and self-effacing way, "The technology has done nothing for me. I still hit my seven-iron 170, same as in high school. If I'm that consistent, I should be a better player."

He remembers, with a chuckle, all the attention he got when he hit the green in two on a 636-yard par-five 17th in the 1993 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. He didn't carry a three-wood, so he hit a one-iron 305 yards to the green.

"Years later, we went back there," Daly says, laughing, "and everybody was hitting that green in two — with four-irons. Technology sure helped them."

In his prime, Daly's driver drew much attention because its face was allegedly made out of the same material as bulletproof vests. A friend of Daly's tested it, shooting it with a .44 magnum. The shot blew the club face off.

"Guess it wasn't bulletproof," Daly said.

Daly's next horizon is the PGA's Champions Tour. Eligibility begins at age 50. Is he looking forward to that, or does he want to continue on the regular tour for awhile?

His answer, and grin, couldn't have been more telling.

"One year, four months, 16 days, 19 hours, 22 minutes, 11 seconds," he says.

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