FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The 17th hole at Bethpage Black is a par 3 with an elevated green fronted by sand and surrounded on all other sides by grandstands and hospitality suites.
Halfway through Thursday’s first round of the PGA Championship, all of the fans in those stands rose as one and let forth a tallboy-soaked cheer that could be heard loud and clear all the way up on the first tee.
John Daly was riding to the green a conquering hero, greeted like General Douglas MacArthur returning to the streets of New York.
If Daly ever had any worry that fans at Bethpage Black would heckle him for using a cart because of the osteoarthritis in his right knee, it disappeared quickly. Tiger Woods may have given a snide remark about Daly’s use of a cart, but the fans greeted him with cheers and fist bumps at his first hole and they never subsided as he posted a five-over 75 for the day.
“The fans were great,” Daly said. “Some of them are going to get on you, but 99.9 of them were great. It was a good feeling.”
It was a good experience for fans and media, too. The secret about golf events is that if you’ve attended one, you’ve attended them all. Players hit good shots, players hit bad shots, fans drink beer, the media complains, someone lifts a trophy at the end, everyone goes home.
Daly’s tour, however, was something new to see. Wearing two of New York’s most polarizing exports — Yankees pants and a Trump shirt — Daly made for a curious figure as he made his way up and down Bethpage’s steep hills in a non-descript golf cart with no canopy. A 32-ounce McDonalds cup filled with diet Coke rested in the front cup holder. A pack of cigarettes was within easy reach.
“It’s the shaggin’ wagon!” one fan yelled as Daly drove 18.
“Someone check him for a DUI!” screamed another.
“Can you spare a smoke?” asked a man who was likely certain he was the first person to ask Daly this question that day. (Spoiler alert: He wasn’t even the first person on that hole.)
There’s no doubt the day was good for the John Daly brand. After winning two majors in the ‘90s — the 1991 PGA at Crooked Stick, the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews — he turned his hard-partying lifestyle into one of golf’s most recognizable brands, even if sustained success on the course was never thrown in as an extra ingredient.
As a former PGA champion, Daly has a lifetime exemption for the event. He’s good through age 60 for the British Open and said he has applied for a cart exemption at Royal Portrush in July, though he’s yet to hear back.
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Daly insists he feels a strong obligation to play in both events as long as he can.
“It’s not really ego, I just feel committed,” Daly said after the round. “As former champions, I feel like if we can play, I don’t care what it takes, I think we should.”
But at 53, Daly is the oldest former champion still competing at the PGA. The only other winner from the ‘90s playing this week is Tiger Woods. Daly hasn’t made the cut at either the PGA or British since 2012, his days of playing at the U.S. Open and Masters are long gone.
So, yeah, the other part of this is obvious. Every hole played at a major increases the value of Daly’s brand, which makes fighting through swelling “the size of a softball” worth it. When your career winnings took a hit because of past gambling addictions and divorces, you do what you need to do.
Walking with Daly for his round on Thursday, it was hard not to notice a certain sadness around the man as he drove his cart while people yelled at him. For a man who’s reveled in attention for the past three decades, this was something new.
“It’s very awkward,” Daly said of riding in the cart. “It’s to the point where it’s almost embarrassing.
“Trust me, if I could walk, I’d rather walk. I feel like I play better when I walk.”
The crowds thinned a bit as the day wore on as the trio of former champions — Daly, Y.E. Yang and Rich Beem — hit the farther reaches of the course. Daly had more room to maneuver his cart, darting under the ropes where necessary and nodding at the comments that still came.
“Can I get a selfie with you and the cart?”
“You got any extra beers in there?”
“How’s the knee feeling?”
“Like sh--,” he replied.
After the round, Daly declined an interview with The Golf Channel, his feelings still stung by a comment made on-air about his cart usage. But he stopped and talked with other reporters before excusing himself to a night of ice to stop the swelling on his knee.
A Friday morning round is coming soon and John Daly is planning to ride again, at least for one more day.
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