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Daly Gets Back in the Swing : Golf: He shoots 69 in first competitive round in four mouths, trails leaders by two shots in Florida.

March 11, 1994|BILL DWYRE | TIMES SPORTS EDITOR

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The two-iron shot flew high and straight, over the water and over the shiny new sponsor's car that had been set out on a platform in the middle of a little pond for maximum exposure.

It kept rising and rising, soaring much higher than two-irons are supposed to. Deflected only slightly by a warm Florida breeze, it cleared the five-foot waterfall easily and stopped dead on the 18th green, 30 feet from the hole and 269 yards from where it had begun its flight.

The gallery that had ballooned to perhaps 4,000 erupted in applause and squeals, oohs and aahs that echoed all over the course.

The word spread quickly: John Daly was back.

Two putts later, Daly had birdied the 585-yard par-five hole and finished his first competitive round of golf in four months with a two-under-par 69, putting him two shots behind co-leaders Bernhard Langer of Germany and Brandel Chamblee after the first round of the Honda Classic on Thursday.

Suddenly, all seemed well again on the PGA Tour. The prodigal son had returned. Detention had been served.

The suspension of Daly, currently the best draw in golf unless Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus happens to be in town, was over. Life amid the palm trees and fancy fairways was good again.

When the Blond Bomber from Memphis stalked off in a sulk in mid-round of a tournament in Hawaii last November, forcing PGA Commissioner Deane Beman to suspend him, the tour was left again with 200 guys named Mark who all hit nice five-irons to the green and who blend in the minds of the paying public like vanilla ice cream in a white dish.

From the moment Daly was given a last-second spot in the 1991 PGA Championship, and drove all night just to make his first tee time en route to winning the tournament, his celebrity has mushroomed remarkably.

Part of it is the public's fascination with a golfer who got drunk a lot, occasionally trashed his home, often squabbled with girlfriend-turned-wife both in private and public, went to drug rehab centers as frequently as others go to the dentist, and still came out week after week to thrill galleries with a special kind of golf.

Most of it is that special kind of golf.

When asked about his memorable second shot on No. 18 Thursday, a shot that not only was terribly risky but also about 60 yards beyond the distance that most mortals can hit a two-iron, Daly said, "I had a great lie and it was downwind, so it probably only played about 240."

When asked about other comparative shots, Daly mentioned a one-iron that he hit last year in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol. That one went 301 yards.

"That kind of shot I remember," he said, as if 269-yard two-irons are what you do at the neighborhood pitch and putt.

Thursday, in his first round back, there was no easing into things. That's not Daly's style, and that's why the crowds love him. Except for the par-threes, he always out-drove his playing partners, Nick Faldo and Mike Hulbert. Daly usually viewed their second shots from 70-80 yards up the fairway. On the par-four 16th, a 440-yard hole, a couple of course marshals decided to measure Daly's drive to the foot. He hit it 329 yards and had to ease up on his second-shot wedge so it wouldn't fly the green.

Daly made the phrase grip and rip a part of the tour lexicon. In golf, and in life, he goes for it all. In a sport of singles hitters, he is Babe Ruth. If he played football, Al Davis would hire four Olympic sprinters and make him quarterback.

When his round ended Thursday, and he emerged from the tiny tent where the players sign their scorecards, he was king of the tour again. Programs and visors and golf balls were thrust his way to sign. Security guards had to form a wedge as he walked and signed, occasionally stopping to accommodate an especially loud squeal from a 70ish female autograph seeker. It was hard to imagine a greater frenzy had the celebrity at hand been Michael Jordan.

Daly, who will turn 28 April 28, is trying hard to handle all this, while being a model citizen, too. His most recent suspension was not his first altercation with golf's powers-that-be. He hopes it was his last, just as he hopes that he has had his last taste of alcohol, his last domestic dispute and his last tantrum with his own furniture.

"I didn't know what to expect today," he said. "I didn't expect to play that well, to hit the ball that well . . . It was nice having that big crowd out there. That's a whole lot better than it was in 1991, before the PGA, when it was just me and my caddie and the scorekeeper, out there all alone."

He was quick to attribute at least part of the large gallery, highly unusual for a Thursday at any PGA event, to the presence of Faldo, considered by many the world's best golfer. Daly has also said a number of times, leading up to this comeback round, that he was grateful for the chance to get back this soon and that "I need the tour more than it needs me."

From the reaction of the crowd when his two-iron sailed 269 yards on No. 18, that might be debatable.

John Daly is back. And that's good for the PGA.

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