by Luke Reese
July 1996. About 4 p.m. Somewhere near Royal Lytham & St Annes. Typically overcast and in the high 50s. Oddly, almost no wind. This was the day before the Open Championship. The grandmother of all golf tournaments. Claret Jug. Old Tom. Young Tom. 5-time Tom. Almost 6-time Tom. Jones. Hogan. Thomson. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Tiger. You want to be one of the immortals? The Open stands as a centurion at the Gates.
A forty man shepardless flock migrated between the driving range and the clubhouse bar. I don’t remember if any women were present. But as women have a civilizing effect on all but the most intractable of men, I’ll assume there were precious few.
Everyone was waiting for the main attraction. After about three pints each, the crowd gathered as a taxi pulled up and the trunk popped open. A caddie hoisted an enormous leather tour bag. Then the defending Open Champion stepped out, a half-smoked cigarette balanced on his lips, and gave the crowd an “aw shucks” wave. He was late because he had been mobbed signing autographs after his practice round. He would never say no. Wouldn't even consider it. He had signed each one legibly, just as Arnie had taught him.
Shouts of excitement rang out. Big John Daly walked over to the range and immediately chatted up the company sales reps and the accounts we had brought to see John hit a few balls and give a little talk.
A typical conversation. “Hi. I’m David from Liverpool. Nice to meet you. I’m a big fan.” “Nice to meet you. I’m John Daly. Do they have good beer in Liverpool?” “Sure do. And the Beatles too.”
John Daly. What’s not to love? Engaging. Affable. Humble. Willing to do anything to help. Almost inconceivable for professional athlete at the height of his game on the night before defending his title at the Open Championship.
For about three more beers per person, Daly hit trick shots and made small bets with the crowd. Pure magic for the accounts. A few guys seemed to be playing a drinking game every time Daly hit a ball within a few feet of his target. They chugged a lot.
At about 6:30, well past the time Daly was supposed to leave, someone suggested they all get a pint. The crowd moving to the bar was my cue to leave. Two other senior executives hopped in my car. Maybe one of us should have stayed till the end.
No upside to us staying. But apparently there was downside to us leaving.
Our departure meant virtually all sober adult supervision was gone. John Daly was now, by far, the most responsible person on the property. What could go wrong? Daly didn’t exactly make a name for himself because of his discipline or impulse control. This might be a night to remember...or forget.
Imagine Daly as a substitute teacher in charge of a bunch of well-oiled young males.
“Good morning. I’m John Daly, your substitute teacher for the day. You guys want to do algebra...to be honest you’ll never use it...except maybe the guy in the front row wearing thick glasses...but he knows more about it than I do.”
“No? Ok. Well, it is a Friday...How about driver's ed? I can teach you how to smoke a butt and do doughnuts in the parking lot.”
Author's note. Everything from now on is hearsay from people with clouded memories. Without the direct evidence presented to me the next morning and the incremental invoice from the club, it wouldn’t stand up in court.
Here’s what I heard.
Someone asked John about other trick shots and he offered to show them one. On cue, somebody grabbed an empty beer bottle and put a golf ball on top of it. Standing on the patio of the bar, looking out over the course, Daly pulled out his driver to the delight of the small but raucous group. He took one of those trademark mega Daly swings. Nothing but ball. No broken glass. The ball travelled three hundred yards...considered a long way back then.
Nobody could believe it. How did he do that?
“Bet you a fiver you can’t do that again.” Daly didn’t need five pounds. But this guy was limping right by Daly’s duck blind with a broken wing. Boom. “Do you want a fade or a draw?” The crowd went wild.
Another great shot. Again, no broken glass.
Five pounds changed hands.
After a few more shots, a low handicap from the crowd yelled, “Can’t be that hard, bet I could do it.”
As my friend Walli says, “Frequently, bad decisions make for great stories.” This was one of those moments. Daly handed the heckler the driver he was going to use within 12 hours to defend the Open Championship.
Nobody in the crowd imitated George Bush and rationally uttered, “Wouldn’t be prudent” or even, “Why don’t we all do this on Sunday night, when it doesn’t matter?” The challenger was a stick, but an overserved one. More importantly, there were about 500,000 golfers in the World Ranking between him and John Daly. He took a beautiful swing. The crowd went nuts as the ball flew an easy 250 dead center...but what really set them off were the fragments of shattered bottle that had travelled far further than your average divot.
Everyone jumped in on the action. The chugged their beers so they’d have a fresh tee to hit a drive with the Open Champion’s driver. Shattered glass. Every time. Huge roars.
The next morning, an enraged tour rep showed me the driver. “This was the only prototype!”
The gash marks on it looked like it had been polished by Edward Scissorhands.
Tom Lehman won the Open that year.
Luke Reese is the author of the critically acclaimed One for the Memory Banks.