When "Wild Thing" shook golf to its core
Hard to believe it’s been 30 years since a good old American country boy took the game of golf by the scruff of the neck, shook it to its very core, and walked off with a major championship. In the process he attracted a legion of golf fans who would never in a million years have dreamt of playing what they’d previously viewed as a game for middle-aged, upper class, mostly white people.
Yes, it’s 30 years since John Daly hit the headlines by winning the 1991 PGA Championship. Wonder if this week’s PGA Championship winner at Kiawah Island will have the same influence on the game as the man who ended up being called “Wild Thing?”
It’s hard to put into words what it was like to be at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana 30 years ago to watch a player win one of golf’s marquee events with an approach to the game that turned golf instruction on its head. Admit it, how many of us had heard of “Grip it and Rip it” until Daly came along?
I certainly hadn’t.
Daly’s victory that week is/was the stuff of legend. Remember, he wouldn’t have been in the field if the eight other alternates ahead of him had decided to take Nick Price’s place when the Zimbabwean withdrew to be with his wife as she went into labour with their child.
Daly had to drive through the night to get to Carmel for the opening round. He’d never seen the golf course before, yet employed Price’s caddie, the late Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin, and went out and won not only his first major championship, but his first PGA Tour event.
At least Medlin knew the golf course. Daly put his faith in him and then simply stood up on every tee and hit it as far as he could with a swing that went so far past parallel the club shaft was practically vertical at the top of the swing. The galleries lapped it up, and Daly wasn’t afraid to crank them up to a noise level that was more akin to the raucous noise of a Worldwide Wrestling match crowd than the normal, genteel behaviour of a golf gallery. For four days he walked around Crooked Stick waving his arms around in the air to whoop up the gallery, and whoop it up they did.
Daly might have been born in California, but he was raised in Arkansas and fit that “good, old, down home country boy" image right down to a tee.
As a journalist covering my first PGA Championship, I spent the final 18 holes walking with Daly and playing companion Kenny Knox, who struggled to a 74 in the rowdy atmosphere.
How raucous was the crowd? I was knocked over in the melee while standing near the 17th tee as fans jostled to get close to Daly.
Of course, Daly went on to win the 1995 Open Championship at St Andrews. He also went on to pen a soap opera with a lifestyle that was as far removed from that of a champion golfer as any other in the canon of major champions. With his loud clothes, he’s still a fan favourite to many despite being far removed from his competitive days.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Daly. He's one of the easiest major champions I’ve ever spoken to. He’s never said no to me.
I walked a practice round with Daly, Price, Tony Johnstone, and Mark McNulty before the 1992 Open Championship at Muirfield. Walking down the 18th fairway, and cognisant his practice round was for all intents and purposes over, I asked him if he’d mind sharing the distances he hit each club in his bag. He rhymed off every yardage from driver to sand wedge. I said thanks and closed my notebook. He said:
“Don’t you want to know how far I hit my putter?”
I was intrigued, and obviously answered yes.
“180 yards,” came the reply.
Was/is Daly good for golf? Many, especially more conservative golfers, would say no, but anyone who can attract an entire new audience to the game has to be a good thing. And anyone who hits a putter 180 yards is far more interesting to write about than many who trot out the usual platitudes.
#JustSaying: “The divorce is from my old putter. I think it’s final – at least we’re due for a long separation. I’ve suffered with that old putter for two years. It got so rude I couldn’t stand it.” Former LPGA player Shelly Hamlin