PGA Championship: The cult of John Daly rides on and nobody can put on the brakes

Tom Kershaw

Carte blanche. John Daly rolled up to the fourth tee at Bethpage Black, peroxide blonde hair billowing in the breeze, lit a cigarette and sipped a Diet Coke from an extra-large McDonalds cup to the delight of the fans jockeying in rungs for a peep.

Ranked No 1,848 in the world, Daly was eligible to play this week due to the PGA Championship victory that catapulted him into stardom in 1991. Of that, there was no controversy. But the 53-year-old’s use of a cart at this week’s tournament, granted by the PGA under the Americans With Disabilities Act owing to a recent operation on his right knee, became a circus unto itself.

Within the rigid traditions of golf, where Tony Finau’s decision to wear a hoodie launched a type of nuclear fashion crisis, Daly has long been a figure of cult status. He arrived at the Long Island course sporting the most gauche New York Yankees patterned trousers imaginable and sunglasses most readily seen on TV Shows such as To Catch a Predator as the hundreds in tow cooed myth and called for him to spin into doughnuts.

The aura around Daly has long been a work of a kind of golfing anti-culture. The maverick amongst chinos, mainlining Marlboro Reds and met with a bizarre gaze by his well-groomed college competitors. Golf’s walking antithesis, carved into a supersized Carmichael frame.

But there’s also a darker side to the unhinged free spirit. A year after he drove through the night to reach Crooked Stick as a late replacement, Daly was charged with third-degree assault for throwing his then-wife Bettye Fulford against a wall while drunk – he denies the incident took place. After that, came the intermittent spells in rehab for alcohol and gambling addictions sandwiching an Open Championship win. The glumly iconic tales of losing $1.5m on a Las Vegas slot machine or returning in the early hours of the Sun City morning with $40,000 in cash stuffed into his pockets. The peak of ugly unravelling coming in 2007, when Daly accused his third wife of attacking him with a steak knife before she was sentenced to five months in prison on federal drug charges.

John Daly smokes a Marlboro Red on his route around Bethpage Black (Getty)

His script outweighs the dizzy highs and dreariest lows of a rockstar’s chronicle. Yet, this week, as he hacked his way through the unforgiving tufts of Farmingdale, greeted by crazed, ironic cheers after finally making a first birdie after 25 holes, before missing the cuts by seven shots, golf’s purists decided the ethereal line of etiquette had been crossed. Dangerous personal strife is one thing, but an impeachment of golf’s very honour? That was the treachery that many could not let abide.

“Well, I walked with a broken leg, so …” Tiger Woods said of Daly’s exemption, while Nick Faldo claimed: “I think walking is an integral part of being a pro golfer. I’ll leave it at that.”

The New York fans celebrate the Wild Thing (Getty)

Daly is only the second player to have been granted permission to use a cart during a PGA Tour event - Casey Martin was allowed to do so in 2012 due to a degenerative condition in his right leg after lengthy legal battles. Yet the Wild Thing’s commandeering days at the wheel are set to continue for another bow after he applied for a similar exemption for this year’s Open at Royal Portrush – another course that ordinarily forbids the use of carts.

After a life chocked full of ugly tailspins, public fallouts and a decade-long pot-holed road to repentance, there is no sign of Daly pushing the brakes. He did, though, undeniably provide an entertaining subtext over the opening two days at Bethpage Black as Brooks Koepka’s relentless procession began. In fact, for the many well-lined New Yorkers in attendance, catching glimpse of the cult country star’s hyper-extended swing was a treasured highlight.

Daly missed the cut by seven shots (Getty)

“It’s just something that if I don’t [use], I’m not going to be able to play, I won’t be able to finish,” Daly said. “It’s very awkward [to use a cart] and it’s almost to a point where it’s embarrassing.”

Daly’s use of a cart is ultimately a harmless and hysterical sidenote so, perhaps, the fallout on his freewheeling was best put by his playing partner, Rich Beem, on Thursday and Friday: “He’s cruising down the fairway lighting up a dart and drinking a Diet Coke. That’s awesome. You go, John. You go, baby.”