Where Have All the Heroes Gone? A Salute to John Daly

I am, at best, an indifferent follower of professional golf.  I know who Tiger Woods is, or was.  There was Vijay Singh, whose name made him sound like he should be from India, when he was actually from the Fiji Islands (there’s more than one?).  There’s Greg Norman, who also makes $15 a bottle wine, and so is way out of my price range.

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John Daly: Breakfast of Champions

For me, golf’s handicap–to coin a phrase–is that it’s a game for grown-ups, an oxymoron.  During a televised tournament known as the Accenture Match Play Championship, my mother-in-law, who has a more than passing interest in the game, asked me what “Accenture” was.  I had to break the news to her gently.  “It’s a consulting firm that was spun off from an accounting firm.”  “Oh,” she said with a disappointed tone, as if I had told her that the thrilling action on TV was brought to her by the IRS.

Granted, a consulting firm that’s spun off from an accounting firm is more exciting than just a plain old accounting firm.  It’s still a comedown from beer, razors and tires, the customary sponsors of other sports.  It’s not as if two guys watching a golf tournament with such a sponsor are going to jump up after they turn off the TV and say “That was great–I could really go for a report on increasing shareholder value by focusing on our core competencies in a changing marketplace.”

“Yeah, me too!  Make mine vello bound, clear front cover, black back!”

But then there’s John Daly.  In an age when so many professional athletes have bent, broken or ignored the rules, using performance-enhancing controlled substances to gain that extra competitive edge, Daly has stuggled against and overcome self-imposed obstacles, playing at the highest level of the game using nothing but performance-impairing drugs such as beer, Diet Cokes and cigarettes.  God bless him.

My thoughts turn to Daly today because he won a tournament recently–his first in thirteen years.  The last time he came to my notice was several years ago when I read that Butch Harmon, Daly’s swing coach, had terminated his relationship with the man known for his “Grip it and rip it” long-distance drives.  Other golfers have swing coaches who have swing coaches, personal trainers, impersonal trainers, etc., whom they fire when they aren’t playing well.  Daly’s swing coach quit on him.  Then again, Daly seems like the kind of guy who, if he was sitting in a golf cart with you having a beer and saw his swing coach approaching, would say “Beat it–here’s comes my damn swing coach.”

The coach quit because of Daly’s conduct at a golf tournament where Daly spent a 2 1/2 hour rain delay in the Hooters “Owl’s Nest”  tent.  A pro golf tournament where beer is served by Hooters, the “delightfully tacky yet unrefined” restaurant chain whose waitresses wear revealing tank tops, is what Anglo-American law refers to as an “attractive nuisance.”  You can’t put an alcohol-fueled dining experience that involves large mammary glands on the 17th hole of a golf course and not expect people to misbehave.

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“Autograph your what?”

Daly’s offense?  It will surprise you.  In an era when millionaire athletes routinely stiff autograph-seekers and refuse to hit home runs for sick kids in hospitals, Daly drank beer, mingled with fans and signed autographs, “including one on the back of a woman’s pants” according to a wire service report.

Is that so terribly wrong?  Have we as a nation strayed so far from our first principles that a man can’t–in good faith–autograph a woman’s butt?  I would hope not, but I’m beginning to have my doubts.

Daly, like me, grew up in central Missouri, a part of the country whose most famous residents are dogs: Old Drum and Jim the Wonder Dog.  The man who said (more or less) “A dog is man’s best friend,” George Graham Vest, is from the region as well.  The nation’s only magazine devoted exclusively to coon and tree hound hunting, “Full Cry,” was published there.  With so much canine achievement to admire, some local humans tend to slack off when it comes to their own personal ambitions.

Statue in front of Johnson County courthouse in Warrensburg.
Old Drum:  Famous for getting shot.

Not Daly.  This is a man who, besides being a top-notch athlete–I mean golfer–recorded an autobiographical album of songs, “My Life,” featuring Willie Nelson.  With a sideman like that, you can be pretty sure there was some recreational drug use involved in the production of the final master tapes.  I tracked down a used copy on CD because I read somewhere that it included a song titled “All of My Exes Wear Rolexes.”  If that’s not poetry, I don’t know what is.

Daly doesn’t fly to golf tournaments.  He travels in an RV–that’s a “recreational vehicle”–one of those tacky, humble, humongous houseboats on wheels you see on the interstate in flyover country.  I worked on an RV assembly line one summer, and am required by federal blogging regulations to disclose that there is an inordinate amount of glue and staples used in their construction.  Do not try to vault the Grand Canyon in an RV.

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Drive the big ones!

Daly showed up at a tournament one time with cuts on his face, saying his wife had attacked him with a steak knife, although she said he had scratched himself after an argument with her.  Not pretty, but then again more interesting than the sort of unpleasantness you go through when your wife says “I can’t believe you wore that tie!” just as you’re about to walk into a Christmas party.  The man lives large.

Daly may be the last of the Ruthian giants of sport, a throwback to a bygone era.  Babe Ruth loved beer, hot dogs, cigars and women, and indulged in them to excess.  When he played for the Red Sox, Ruth lived on a farm in Sudbury, Mass. where, according to legend, there is a piano at the bottom of a pond.  The story is told that Ruth rolled the piano out onto its frozen surface one night to accommodate a large crowd for a sing-along, then–as often happens after this sort of affair–forgot to bring it back indoors, and it sank when the ice thawed.

Sounds like a party Daly would have enjoyed.

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