Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: Hanging with John Daly at the 2009 Masters (sort of)

By July of 2009, a slimmer John Daly was back on the golf course. But at the Masters in April, he was across the street, hawking hats.
By July of 2009, a slimmer John Daly was back on the golf course. But at the Masters in April, he was across the street, hawking hats. AP

Editor’s note: This column originally published on April 10, 2009.

John Daly is diminished.

I walk to his customized RV late Thursday morning, in front of which is a long table full of autographed Daly paraphernalia. A man stands behind the table. Is John here?

The man nods to his left. Standing 5 feet away with a cigarette between his lips and a Hogs cap pulled low on his head is Daly. I didn’t recognize him.

“I lost 40 pounds,” Daly says.

How?

“Lap band surgery.”

Seven weeks ago he had an adjustable silicone band placed around the inner part of his stomach, restricting his intake of chicken wings.

“I was 280, biggest I’ve ever been,” Daly says. “I need to get down to 190.”

Not only is he less heavy, he’s less tall. He is listed at 5-foot-11. I’m 5-9 and I could post him up.

“Some guy was here,” says Daly. “He said, ‘You’re not John Daly. John Daly is 6-5 and 300 pounds and he’s in rehab.’”

Daly holds a cigarette between his index and middle finger, lets it drift to the ground, steps on it and lights another.

The RV is parked at National Hills, a collection of stores across the street from Augusta National Golf Club. Daly easily could drive a ball from where he stands onto club property, and probably hit a Lexus.

He’s played across the street in 12 Masters, and in 1993 tied for third. But he’ll come onto the property this week only if his buddy, Pat Perez, is in contention. To understand the friendship, understand Perez’s driver is covered with a boxing glove.

The tournament is more interesting if Daly is part of it. He was one of golf’s biggest stars, a country boy attempting to conquer a country club game.

But he also was a one-man reality show. His four marriages usually ended badly, and in front of everybody. He lost more money gambling than most of us will make. His drinking episodes were so common that fans take turns talking about the time they got hammered with him, what he did and what a good time was had by all.

In October, Daly fell asleep in the front of a Hooter’s in Winston-Salem. Police offers did not arrest him but jailed him for a night.

The PGA was infuriated, again. It suspended him for six months and Hooters, his long-time sponsor, ended the relationship.

At 42, Daly obviously no longer is the golfer he was. He also says he no longer is the man he was.

He flips his cigarette, a Marlboro Medium, to the ground and lights another.

“I can’t gamble anymore,” he says. “So I still got” smoking.

He says he’s seeing a therapist.

The perception of Daly is that he wasted his enormous talent because he didn’t care. But he says he loves the game.

What do you love about it?

“I miss going and competing,” he says. “The competition of it.”

He’ll compete in the Spanish Open this month and be eligible to return to the PGA Tour in May.

“I’ve been practicing,” he says.

He says his short game has been faulty. He’s working with Rick Smith, who used to coach Phil Mickelson. If he returns, if somebody offers an exemption, his galleries will be bigger than he was before the surgery.

A customer asks Daly if he really signed all the T-shirts, caps and posters.

“I signed them all today,” Daly tells him.

So not only is the merchandise autographed, the autographs are fresh. The man hands Daly $20 for a cap, and a tall woman with dark hair and ornate sunglasses puts it in a rubber purse.

I ask her name and what she does for Daly.

“I can’t tell you,” she says.

Ten seconds later she says, “I’m Anna. I’m John’s girlfriend.”

I ask Anna how she’d describe Daly to a stranger.

“The most down-to-earth, warmest, most colorful, teddy bear,” she says. “And everybody loves a teddy bear. He’s just like one of us.”

One of us is Daly’s appeal. Some golfers appear to live pristine, pastel, color-coordinated lives. Daly makes more mistakes than we do. He did, anyway.

I ask what he’s going to do Thursday night. He says an Italian chain restaurant, which he calls the best Italian restaurant in the country, gave him a $1,000 gift card, and he’s going to eat there.

So this is Daly at 42. He looks small, eats small, says he has stopped gambling, sees a therapist and for a good time eats free food at a chain restaurant. Adulthood eventually claims most of us. Perhaps Daly has been claimed.

A man he knows approaches and when they see other they laugh.

“I got four Hooters girls coming,” Daly says.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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