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Daly Wipes Slate Clean Again : Golf: After being idle since August, he returns to PGA Tour today at La Costa with new attitude.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Daly, golf’s prodigal son, returns to the PGA Tour on a full stomach and an empty memory when the season-opening Mercedes Championships begin today at La Costa.

Daly, who hasn’t played since he voluntarily left the tour last August, said he has gained 15 pounds, while shedding old baggage.

“I’ve got a New Year’s resolution to forget about the past,” Daly said Wednesday. “That’s what I’m going to do in ’95.”

The 28-year-old Daly, who won the 1991 PGA Championship, hopes for an improved 1995 after bogeying ’94.

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He won the BellSouth Classic in May, but was disqualified from the Canon Greater Hartford Open in June when he signed an incorrect scorecard.

In July, before the British Open, he was quoted in a newspaper story calling for drug testing on the PGA Tour, a stance that proved unpopular among his peers. He withdrew from his next event, citing exhaustion.

Daly’s problems worsened at the NEC World Series of Golf. He scuffled with the father of golfer Jeff Roth after the elder Roth had accused Daly of hitting into his son’s group.

In September, Daly said he wouldn’t play for the rest of the year and the PGA Tour indicated it had influenced that decision because of Daly’s conduct. Daly later said he had decided to sit out to rest his chronically painful back.

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Daly said he played almost no golf during his hiatus, then began again in earnest in November when he played 45 holes at Augusta National with Frank Broyles, the athletic director at the University of Arkansas.

“I’m fresh,” Daly said. “I’m ready to play.”

Daly said he has worked on rehabilitating his back and recently cut back his workouts from four days a week to two.

Daly also said he learned something during his time off.

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“It takes me a little longer to grow up than a lot of people,” he said. “I don’t have my regrets, just live and learn.”

Besides, Daly pointed out, on Dec. 21, he had been sober two years.

“Do they give trophies for that?” he joked.

The $1-million Mercedes Championships, formerly the Tournament of Champions, features a field of 31, all 1994 tournament winners.

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In some respects, it’s not a “Who’s Who” of golf, but a “Who’s Where?” None of the winners of last year’s major titles are entered.

Nick Price, who won the British Open and the PGA, is vacationing in Zimbabwe. U.S. Open champion Ernie Els is in South Africa, and Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal isn’t scheduled to play in the United States until just before the Masters.

But Phil Mickelson is back in defense of the title he won last year when he beat Fred Couples in a playoff.

Couples is back too, trying to extend golf’s longest current streak of five years with at least one victory. Beginning with the 1990 Nissan Los Angeles Open, Couples has won eight times.

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You’ll have to look quickly to see Greg Norman, who isn’t going to play again on the PGA Tour until April. Norman has been following sort of a whirlwind schedule, vacationing in his native Australia, playing a few special events, trying to start another tour.

This is the first PGA Tour event for Norman since he announced in November the proposed 1995 World Tour, which the PGA Tour immediately branded as a rival for players, sponsors and dates.

Norman said Wednesday his only involvement in the World Tour is as a supporter. He said John Montgomery, the new tour’s chief officer, is the one negotiating with the PGA Tour.

Since Tim Finchem, PGA Tour commissioner, said he would fine or suspend any tour member who played on the World Tour, enthusiasm for the venture televised by Fox might be on the wane.

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David Evans, president of Fox, said the network remains keenly interested in the World Tour.

“We would be interested if the PGA and the other powers that be decide it was something they wanted to do,” Evans said. “We think it would take golf to another level.”

Evans also said Fox’s younger audience would open a new market for golf.

Daly was asked how he felt about the World Tour.

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“I’m just trying to stay on the PGA Tour, and that’s hard enough to do,” he said.


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