KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Seeing Rory McIlroy a shot out of the lead at the 94th PGA Championship? No surprise; he is ranked third in the world and won last year’s US Open by eight shots at age 22.
Having Carl Pettersson in front after a first-round 66 at the Ocean Course? Not a shock, considering he uses a long putter, and two of the past three majors were won by players with putters of unconventional length.
But John Daly sitting two shots back in joint sixth, opening with a 4-under 68? That was most unexpected, to almost everyone but Daly.
A popular two-time major champion whose galleries once rivaled those of Tiger Woods, Daly has had enough highs and lows, and authored enough incredible tales both on the golf course and off, to rival Paul Bunyan. Some good, many not.
Thursday was a good day, an extension of the way Daly has been playing, albeit quietly, despite the loud clothing he endorses and is now known for.
“I think it’s kind of been building up for the last five or six weeks,” said Daly, who tied for fifth at last week’s Reno-Tahoe Open, his best PGA Tour finish since a tie for ninth last year. “I’ve always said, when I get on a little run — six, seven, eight weeks in a row — I feel like I have a better chance of playing well, and it’s starting to pay off a little bit.
“I’ve been playing good. I’m trying to be myself, just play golf and enjoy it.”
Daly still bombs it off the tee — talk about unconventional length — one of the main reasons why he was such a fresh, fun novelty when he burst on the scene 21 years ago, getting into the 1991 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate and going on to win.
That introduced the mullet-favoring strongman from Arkansas to the golf world, which seemed awestruck at the way he could turn a championship course into a pitch-and-putt with his prodigious drives.
Daly, who led the PGA Tour in driving distance 11 times in his first 12 years, can still get it out there.
“He drove the ball 9 miles down the fairway, made it look pretty easy, actually,” said David Toms, who was paired with Daly and shot 72. “[Fans] seem to like him a lot, and the kind of golf he plays, and why not? I’d root for him too if I wasn’t out here trying to beat him.”
Toms hasn’t had much of a chance recently. Daly hasn’t had full tour playing privileges since the start of the 2007 season, part of a downward spiral over the years that has included on-course shakes and meltdowns, big-numbered holes (he made an 18 at Bay Hill once), divorces, arrests, lawsuits, massive gambling losses, and tour suspensions.
Yet Daly remains a cult-like figure. He still receives sponsor’s exemptions — more than anyone else, by far — and has averaged 17 PGA Tour starts the last five years.
He has taken to playing on the European Tour — he’s entitled to membership off his 1995 British Open victory at St. Andrews — and this year has nearly as many starts there (seven) as on the PGA Tour (10) . He has been solid, too, with three top-25 finishes, including a fourth.
But the only majors Daly plays now are the ones he is eligible for from his victories in them. He hasn’t missed the British Open or PGA since 1999.
When he has played in the PGA, it hasn’t been well. His 1991 win marks the only time he finished better than 29th, and he has either withdrawn or missed the cut in his last four PGA appearances, and 11 of the past 13.
All of which made his opening 68 so startling. Playing on a hot, sticky morning without feeling the force of the famous wind blowing off the Atlantic, Daly eagled the par-5 11th hole to tie for the lead at 4 under, then made two birdies and two bogeys coming home. A long par putt on No. 18 left him hopeful that another run, maybe even another win, is still in him.
“My mind is right to give me a chance,” he said. “If I make a double, who cares? If I play good here, it doesn’t really matter to me. If I play bad, it doesn’t matter to me. But I want to play good.
“I’m just kind of loosey-goosey out there, and it just feels good. For me, to just free-wheel it is the only way I can get my confidence back, instead of worrying about bad breaks and worrying about this and worrying about what somebody else is doing. I only need to worry about what I’m doing.
“I just believe if I keep telling myself, I’ll get where I want to be instead of being negative about it.”
He still has plenty of supporters, on both sides of the ropes.
“He’s always been great to me over the years,’’ said Tiger Woods, a shot behind Daly after a 69. “I have always rooted for him. I have always been a John Daly fan and a friend.”