DARDANELLE, Ark. — John Daly eased his golf cart to a stop when he encountered three men working on his 18-hole course. It’s the same course on which he learned to play when he was growing up in this town of 4,745.
“I think your pond’s full of snakes,” one of the men said.
“Oh, there’s tons of them in there,” Daly replied. “Got Copperheads, water moccasins.”
“Yeah, killed three,” the man said.
“Attaboy. Kill ’em anytime you want,” Daly said.
The men chuckled and the original bad boy of golf grinned.
In many ways, not much has changed since Daly came from nowhere to win the 1991 PGA Championship. But as he turned 50 on Thursday and starts a new chapter in his life and career, Daly says he has found something new: peace.
That’s right, the man who still smokes Marlboros, drinks alcohol, gambles and lovingly pats his big belly as if to taunt the Grim Reaper is happy as he approaches the turn on life’s half-century mark. And May 6-8 at The Woodlands Country Club outside of Houston, Daly is scheduled to make his debut on the Champions Tour, reserved for golfers 50 and older.
He will be the only tour member with two major championships, three children, four ex-wives and, seemingly, nine lives.
“I beat a lot of odds,” Daly told USA TODAY Sports. “I never thought I’d get to the Champions Tour.”
During a wide-ranging interview conducted in his hometown, where Daly spends about four weeks a year, he addressed topics that included:
Suicidal thoughts. “I was going to drive my Mercedes off a cliff.”
His sex life. “Look, you’re loyal to me and you have sex when I want to have sex, then I won’t cheat on you.”
The state of the PGA Tour. “It’d be cool to see some of the guys cut up a little bit and have some fun.”
Sobriety. “I don’t want people judging me just because I’m drinking again.”
His future in golf. “I’m still competitive as hell and I always will be.”
For a guy whose life often looked so messy, Daly revealed something that might come as a surprise given his unruly behavior on and off the golf course.
“I’m an OCD neat freak,” he said. “I can’t stand messes. I make my bed every morning. Laundry. I do it all.”
Less surprising: Once the owner of an infamous mullet, Daly said he usually he cuts his own hair.
“I hate getting haircuts,” he said. “It’s like going to the damn dentist, man. I can’t stand it. It takes time. They got those grooming machines, just use them. You cut your hair perfect every time.”
Major high, major low
Unlike the mullet haircut, the story of how Daly burst onto the golf scene never goes out of style.
It was almost 25 years ago when he was the ninth and final alternate for the 1991 PGA Championship. He was a 25-year-old Tour rookie who’d missed 11 cuts in 23 starts and had virtually no shot to make the field. But when a series of players pulled out, he drove halfway across the country the night before first round at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana.
Then Daly went out and won the tournament, landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and captured the imagination of sports fans with his booming drives, fearless play and rebellious streak. But the next year, Daly recalled, he was in Palm Springs, Calif., and thinking about driving his Mercedes off a cliff.
A phone conversation with Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, the famed Dallas Cowboys player who overcame substance abuse problems, talked Daly out of going through with the suicide plan and saved his life, according to Daly.
“He just said the right things to keep me from doing it and we’ve been friends ever since,” Daly said, adding that his feeling out of place on the PGA Tour contributed to the suicidal thoughts he said he never experienced again. “I just didn’t fit in. You know what I mean?
“I wasn’t a silver-spoon kid on the golf course growing up. And no disrespect to any of them, but it was hard for me to get to know some of the guys on Tour.”
When he won the 1995 British Open, Daly said, he finally felt he belonged. But two years later, he sought help at the Betty Ford Center for his alcohol problems. He recalled writing a list of pros and cons about his then-turbulent life.
“It’s probably the greatest thing that woke me up to realize, ‘It’s not just your fault, man.’ Take responsibility for your actions, but you can’t keep blaming yourself for everything,” said Daly, who at the time was on the third of four marriages. “I learned it really wasn’t as much about the drinking as it was about me taking the blame for everything. Because I still have a drink every now and then.”
Sober from 1992 to 1997 and from 2005 to 2013, Daly said, he then reneged on a public pledge.
“The dumbest thing I ever said is that I’d never drink again,” Daly said. “But that’s what I was feeling at that moment. I know I would never say that again.
“The older I’ve gotten — and I know a lot of alcoholics that say, ‘You’re just so stupid,’ but I don’t feel this way — I’ve felt like if I go out and have a few beers. I just want to be able to go have a few beers with my friends and be social.
“I’ll bet I’ve had 10 beers in the last three weeks. Maybe 15 beers in the last three weeks. I had a few John Dalys (lemonade and vodka) on my bus in Augusta.
“But other than that, it’s not like, ‘I’ve got to drink every day.’ Eighty-five, 90% of the time when I go play golf and I’m here (in Dardanelle), I fill my cooler with Diet Coke.”
While he has continued to drink, Daly said, he also has continued to gamble — in moderation. He said he enjoys casino slot machines.
“I don’t have to play the $1,000 machines, the $500 machines,” he said. “I usually play (the $25 machines) most of the time and just go in for two or three hours and have a good time. If I win, I win. If I don’t, OK, I’m gone.
“I don’t get markers anymore. I finally realized that once every 15 times I might win at a casino. Back then I just thought I could buy it. Just keep bringing the money, bringing the money. Next thing you know, $2 million or $3 million, whoa, it’s getting out of hand here. Well, hang on here, it’s getting out of hand, and it did for a few years.”
Daly has fared little better on the course. His game has turned into a country song and abandoned him.
His last victory came in the 2004 Buick Invitational, and he lost his exempt status on the PGA Tour after the 2006 season. Over the past decade, Daly has relied on sponsor invitations to get into PGA Tour events and missed the cut 61% of the time (97 of 159 tournaments). As the sponsor invitations dwindled, Daly has padded his schedule with appearances on the European Tour and the Web.com Tour, populated with rookies, up-and-comers and never-will-be’s.
Currently, Daly is 987th in the world rankings. He cites an injury he suffered in 2007, when he said a spectator’s camera flash caused him to hit behind his ball and, as a result, suffer fractured ribs and a separated shoulder. That and elbow problems have undermined his performance, Daly said.
“I haven’t been the same since,” he said. “It’s been brutal.”
He hasn’t qualified for The Masters since 2006, but Daly said he can make top-10 money just by doing paid appearances in Augusta, Georgia, the week of the tournament. Aware of his lucrative brand, Daly has assembled profitable, spinoff enterprises that include his John Daly Handcrafted Vodka Cocktails and John Daly Pizza.
Daly owns the 5,139-square foot home in Dardanelle, a 4,477-square-foot home in Memphis — his old stomping grounds — and his tour bus. His career earnings on the PGA Tour are $10.2 million and Daly has earned millions more from endorsements and appearances overseas. He wrote in his 2006 autobiography that he lost between $50 million and $60 million gambling over the previous 15 years.
Asked how he’s doing financially, Daly smiled as he sat in his house in Dardanelle and said, “Heck, everything’s pretty much getting close to being paid for.”
Like father, like son
His financial health might strike some people as less alarming than his physical health. In August, after struggling with his breathing during a 90-degree day, Daly collapsed at a tournament in Mississippi.
Patting his belly with affection, Daly said he weighs 250 pounds — down from his high of 329 pounds in 2008, when he had lap-band weight-loss surgery, and up from his low of 172 pounds after the surgery.
“I don’t feel healthy being 200 pounds or 185,” Daly said. “I lose distance. I like to have this gut to put my elbow on it when I putt because I did it for so long. I just feel healthier this way.
“You know, TV adds 30, 40 pounds to you. I’m going to be seen on TV and they’re going to go, ‘Oh, my God. Daly’s gained 500 pounds.’ I’ve gained a lot of it back that I lost. But I just wasn’t healthy.”
There is a slimmer John Daly playing golf these days, but he’s only 12. That’s John Daly II, who attends a golf academy in Florida and resembles his famous father, if not in physique.
“He cusses a little bit, but what golfer doesn’t?” Daly said. “And he’ll throw a club or two. People say, ‘Why’d your son throw that club?’ And I say, ‘Because he cares.’ You know?
“I throw them because I care. I don’t throw them as much as I used to. But it’s a reflex or emotion of adrenaline is what I call it. You go, ‘Oh, my God. I just did that. I didn’t realize I did it.’ Like at the PGA last year when I threw the 6-iron in the lake. More of a reflex or just negative adrenaline, I guess.
“He’s competitive as hell. That’s just him. He’s competitive as hell in everything. I don’t let him win, either. Hell, no.”
No matter how heated the competition gets, however, Daly is not about to step foot in the gym in effort to keep pace. In the early 1990s, Daly said, he bought about $60,000 of weight training equipment.
“Went at it strong for three or four months and I started liking it and then I started getting really tight up here,” Daly said, moving his hands across his chest. “And I started losing flexibility and I said, ‘No way.’ “
Daly said he thinks lifting weights is what led to Rory McIlroy’s injuries and contributed to Tiger Woods’ physical problems.
“He’s gotten so bulked up,” Daly said of McIlroy, “and I think it happened to Tiger a little bit. You fall in love with it and you start seeing results and you start seeing your belly get tight and you start seeing forearms and muscles and stuff and you just feel like you’re strong.”
Daly sees requisite weight training among the game’s top young golfers as part of the new PGA Tour. It’s a business-first enterprise, and one he’s uncomfortable with.
“I’m kind of scared to do anything,” Daly said. “I’m a little wary, but that’s probably because of the past fines and stuff that I’ve done. But it’s almost like I’m scared to have fun.
“These guys work out. They’ve got their psychologist. They’ve got their strength coach. It’s run like a business. Of course it should be. But it’d be cool to see some of the guys cut up a little bit and have some fun.”
And Daly said he intends to have fun on the Champions Tour,
“I like to play for a little bit of money on the course,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be able to get a few games on the senior tour for that again. Because we can’t play cards on the PGA Tour in the locker room. And Tim (Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour) didn’t like us when we’d gamble too much on practice days.”
‘I’m a rookie again’
Daly suggests he’s no longer gambling with his personal life even though he plans to have a fifth wife. She is Anna Cladakis, Daly’s girlfriend since 2008, and the death of her father and the death of one of Daly’s close friends prompted them to postpone wedding plans in 2014 and 2015.
A fifth marriage, for the record, would tie Daly with Joan Collins. Cladakis caddies for Daly, handles his financial matters and fulfills one of his biggest needs.
“Like I told Anna when we first started dating, ‘I am a nympho, but I’m a loyal nympho. You stay loyal to me, I’ll stay loyal to you,’ ” Daly said. “Sex is the greatest thing in the world. It just doesn’t last long enough. I’ll say it. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
Being John Daly apparently feels pretty good, too, as his 50th birthday came and Champions Tour debut approaches.
“I’m a rookie again,” he said. “You know, I got a whole new life ahead of me.”