In his eyes, his rookie year on the PGA Tour already was successful. The 25-year-old from Arkansas had a pair of top-10 finishes and earned $166,590 — decent money in 1991 — to assure that he would keep his card. It also was enough to make him the ninth alternate for the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick.
So he thought nothing of an eight-hour drive through the night to Indiana, with no guarantee he would play, until he checked into his hotel in the early morning hours and saw the message light on his phone. Nick Price had withdrawn from the final major of the year to stay with his wife for the birth of their first child, and the alternate ahead of Daly on the list, Brad Bryant, was not available.
"I was just happy that I got in," Daly said.
About 10 hours later, Daly stepped onto the first tee of a 7,295-yard course that he had never seen.
At the time, golf had never seen anything like Daly.
His swing was so long that the head of his driver pointed to the ground. It was so powerful that he never hit more than a 7-iron into the par 4s when he seized control of the PGA Championship in the second round. By Sunday, he was slapping hands and pumping fists on his way to a stunning win that made Daly an instant star, a Bunyanesque figure who promised to deliver all sorts of excitement for years to come.
And he did, in ways not many could have imagined.
He won only six more times worldwide, but one of those was a British Open at St. Andrews. He went through three more divorces. He was suspended at least twice by the PGA Tour. He sought alcohol treatment twice and named one of his three children after one rehab center he visited in Arizona. His son was born five days before his fourth wife and her parents were named in a federal indictment on drug and illegal gambling charges.
But he’s still going.
Daly still entertains. Fans forgive him, and they love him.
"I’ve been up and down, up and down. And that’s how life is," Daly said. "But I keep coming back. I’ve had troubles in my career, but the fans can relate. I don’t have any skeletons in my closet. One thing I can say about my life is that I wake up every morning and don’t have to worry about whether anybody is going to find something out about me."
Daly returns to the PGA Championship this year, 20 years after the week that changed his life.
"It feels like it’s been 40 years, to tell you the truth," he said.
Price had heard about the big-hitting rookie from friends in South Africa, where Daly had won a couple of tournaments the year before while trying to get to the PGA Tour.
"A lot of guys were telling me, ‘You’ve got to see John.’ So we played a practice round at the Byron Nelson," Price said. "I had never seen anyone with a straight left arm get the club that far around. And there was this ‘whoosh‘ when he hit the ball, like a windmill. It was amazing. He had a lot of game."
Price never would have thought they would be connected in history. His wife was expecting the weekend before the PGA Championship, but there were no indications she was ready to give birth. Knowing that Daly’s alternate number was getting close, Price told him it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get to Crooked Stick. And he had some advice if Daly were to get into the tournament.
"I said, ‘Just make sure you take Squeak. He’s up there, he’s seen the course, he’ll do you a great job.’ I wasn’t wrong," Price said.
Price was referring to his caddie, Jeff "Squeaky" Medlin, who took only a few holes of the first round to figure out what Daly was all about — and what to say to him.
"He knew I was an aggressive player," Daly said. "I think it was on about the third hole. He said, ‘Just kill it, John.’ And we stuck with that the rest of the week."
Even as a 14-year-old in Australia, Geoff Ogilvy vividly remembers watching that PGA Championship, even to the point that he could recite the top four finishers.
"That was really the first week that golf became about long hitting," Ogilvy said. "Yes, Greg Norman hit it long, and Jack Nicklaus hit it long, and Bobby Jones hit it long. But the whole game changed. All of a sudden, people thought, ‘How big of an advantage is this to smash it that far?’ He was the first, at least in this generation, who was a truly absurd long hitter."
Was it a fluke? Or was this blond-haired bomber from Arkansas about to change the game? Bruce Lietzke, the runner-up, was leaning toward the notion that Daly was for real.
"He could be that guy who starts winning seven or eight golf tournaments a year," Lietzke said that Sunday afternoon. "He can overpower 15 golf courses on tour."
It wasn’t long before Daly made headlines for other reasons.
Four months later, he broke his putter in the second round of the Johnnie Walker World Championship in Jamaica and was disqualified for signing for an incorrect score after his 87. He didn’t even sign his card in Australia after an 81 in the second round. He was accused of trashing a hotel room during a drunken rage in South Africa.
It’s a long list. When his disciplinary file was made public last year as part of court records in a lawsuit, there were no big surprises.
There was another side to Daly that was overlooked through all his escapades. He donated $30,000 to set up a trust fund for the two young daughters of a man killed by lightning at Crooked Stick during the PGA Championship. Both went on to graduate college. If someone was in need and Daly could help, he did so without asking questions. With his newfound fame, old friends showed up with their hands out, and Daly didn’t turn them away.
"I had people borrowing money and saying they would pay me back, stuff like that," Daly said. "They would want to invest your money, and they stole it. That happens to everybody. I didn’t know any better."
And so began a roller coaster ride like none other in golf.
Daly won the B.C. Open in 1992 and three months later entered alcohol rehab. He got into a scuffle with the father of a player at Firestone in 1994 and agreed to sit out the rest of the year. He then won at St. Andrews in 1995 for his second major.
It has been that way his whole career, although there haven’t been many upward trends on the golf course. His last win came in 2004 at the Buick Invitational by making birdie from a bunker behind the 18th green at Torrey Pines. How fitting that he won with a shot that has come to define his life.
It was an up-and-down.
What was expected of Daly after he won that PGA Championship at Crooked Stick?
His raw talent alone — extreme power, a remarkably soft touch with the short game — would suggest more than five PGA Tour wins.
"He should have won more," Ogilvy said. "He needed a great first wife, don’t you think? One of those wives who would pull his head in, let him be John Daly, but just without that little bit of excess."
Peter Kostis, a swing coach and CBS Sports analyst who worked his first PGA Championship at Crooked Stick, was expecting the start of something truly grand when Daly won 20 years ago.
"But I didn’t appreciate the difficulties he would have with the social parts of his life, the lack of social awareness and social situations that I think really bothered him," Kostis said. "And he fought it."
Daly’s goal when he finally reached the PGA Tour in 1991 was simply to keep his card. When he won the PGA Championship, he had no idea it came with a 10-year exemption. "If I had known that, I would have choked," he said.
His biggest dream as a kid was to win a British Open at St. Andrews, and that’s why he is satisfied with his career.
"I did more than what I thought I would have," Daly said. "I never thought I was a very consistent golfer. I was aggressive, and that’s how I was taught. So the good will come with the bad. But I’ve learned a lot.
"I know I’ve made people mad, but I’ve also helped a lot of people."
Through it all, even as he returns to Atlanta Athletic Club 20 years after he appeared out of nowhere, he remains an attraction. Some are just curious to see what he will do next. Some expect to see a spectacular crash.
Most of them see beyond the high scores and the wild living, the gambling debts, the failed marriages, the 61 rounds in the 80s, swatting a ball as it was rolling off the green at Pinehurst, heaving a driver over the fence at Winged Foot.
They see someone they can relate to — not all of him, but parts of him.
"If you take all those things away, whether bad luck or his own doing, he’s still a good guy," Steve Stricker said. "A lot of people have ups and downs throughout their lives, and they can relate to John. A lot of people had had a divorce — maybe not four of them — and they say, ‘This guy is like us.’ As athletes, you get put on a pedestal and it’s like nothing can go wrong."
Daly first attracted fans because of the long ball. Then came his exploits off the course.
But there was always the appeal of an everyman. He was, and still is, unlike any other golfer in an otherwise buttoned-up sport.