John Daly was a sight to behold Wednesday, rolling around Bethpage Black — a course that traditionally doesn’t allow carts — with his green-swirled surfing shorts, a cigarette dangling from his lips and his platinum mullet glistening in the sun.
“Let’s go, Johnnie!” rang the encouraging shouts from the gallery, cheers for an unvarnished man of the people knocking his way around a brutal, undulating, 7,426-yard public course.
This could be a weird PGA Championship.
One month removed from the most dramatic Masters in memory, the spotlight swings to Long Island, where two of the most talked-about competitors are someone who got the most out of his talents — recently, that is — and someone who’s gotten the least.
The golf world is waiting to see if 43-year-old Tiger Woods can follow his victory at Augusta National with another major championship at Bethpage, where he won the U.S. Open in 2002. Depending on the oddsmaker, he’s either the favorite or close to it, even though it would be stunning for him to assemble back-to-back major victories after an 11-year drought.
“I can’t walk but six or seven holes,” Daly told The Times last month. “It’s osteoarthritis. Just had the meniscus cut out. ... I’m going to get a cart for the PGA Championship, and I’ll hopefully get one for the British because I hate to miss it. But if I walk six holes, this [knee] will swell up like a grapefruit.”
Woods, who seldom takes a jab at anyone, made his feelings clear this week when asked at a news conference about Daly’s use of a cart.
“As far as J.D. taking a cart,” he said, “well, I walked with a broken leg, so...”
The last competitor allowed to use a cart in a major was Casey Martin, now the golf coach at the University of Oregon. He was born with a circulatory disorder that nearly cost him his leg. He was permitted to compete in two U.S. Opens, in 1998 and 2012, while riding in a cart.
He recently came out in support of Daly, telling Golf.com: “I’m happy for him because I know John a little bit and I know for certain that he’s not trying to get an advantage.”
Woods made the most of his abilities in winning the latest Masters, in that he’s had to rely on strategy over power in the wake of four back surgeries. Then again, he went through a long stretch when his game and personal life were circling the drain, so he and Daly are hardly polar opposites.
Regardless, Woods winning the Masters has breathed new life into golf, just as moving the PGA from August to May has allowed the sport to capitalize on that Augusta momentum and intrigue.
Still, he’s unquestionably a fan favorite and was swarmed by supporters every time he drove, slowly, from hole to hole. He signed hats and pin flags, and posed for selfies.
“There’s nothing like it,” spectator Jeff Zwiebel said. “I’ve got pictures of a par-3 where he high-fived a little kid and signed a ball. He’s great for golf.”
Like the shifting skies above the course that are supposed to produce rain Thursday, this field is cloudy and unpredictable.
Brooks Koepka has won three of his last seven majors, and last month finished a shot behind Woods at the Masters. He’s a big hitter, which fits Bethpage well.
For the third year in a row, Dustin Johnson comes into the PGA at No. 1 in the world rankings. He has just one major victory, however, in the 2016 U.S. Open. He, too, crushes the ball off the tee.
“I really like this course, especially if you’re hitting it well,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s all about driving. The fairways are generous in some spots. Some holes are narrow. But you’ve got to hit the fairways here; the rough is pretty penal. It’s not super deep, but it’s really thick. You’ve got to drive it straight.”
Jordan Spieth needs only the PGA to complete a career grand slam — wins in all four majors — but he has been struggling lately. His best finish this year was a tie for 21st in the Masters, and that was after shooting a wobbly 75 in the opening round.
“I’ve shot some low rounds, but piecing together four has been difficult this season so far,” he said. “But it’s gotten more progressively consistent throughout the year, and out here, you’re going to need that kind of consistency.”
Driving will be key for everyone, whether the golfers have a club in their hands, or — in Daly’s case — a steering wheel.