Back in the day, John Daly was a walking news story, a magnet for attention drawn from a life of sheer extremes. Winning majors, losing wives, gaining weight, losing at the casino, hitting it a mile when a mile still meant something…. Every aspect of Daly’s existence seemed to come in nothing smaller than an XXL.
As any headline writer will tell you, size does matter.
A generation later, Daly struggles just to walk, and so the news comes to him. The 1991 PGA champion has been cleared to use a cart at the 101st edition of the tournament, to be held next week at Bethpage Black. Having been denied a similar request last July at the U.S. Senior Open, from which he withdrew, pro golf’s fair-haired fillintheblank, who just turned 53, got a ruling in his favor this time around.
The PGA of America approved Daly’s request per the Americans with Disabilities Act, which entered the game’s lexicon during Casey Martin’s lengthy legal battle with the PGA Tour in the early 2000s. Martin won the case via a 7-2 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and would play in 43 big-league events during his career, including a pair of U.S. Opens.
Comparing Daly’s situation to that of Martin, is, shall we say, a bit of a stretch, no matter how flexible your lawyers might be. Martin was born with a rare condition known as Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome in his right leg and has walked with a limp for much of his life. Daly is among an estimated quarter-billion people worldwide who suffer from osteoarthritis, the most common form of joint pain known to man.
Before we dissect the logic behind granting a medically related accommodation to one of the most self-abusive pro golfers of this or any other era, a guy whose body is breaking down at an age when many of his peers are feeling so spry, it’s worth pointing out that the USGA and PGA of America came down on opposite sides of the matter. Perhaps for fairly transparent reasons.
For bluecoats with long memories, Daly’s behavior during the final round of the 1999 U.S. Open probably didn’t strengthen his case to ride last summer. Having failed on three attempts to putt up a slope bordering Pinehurst’s eighth green, Long John Shortfuse gave it the old one-handed polo whack on his fourth try, striking his ball before it had come to rest and eventually carding an 11 on the hole.
Does the USGA hold grudges? Y’all be the judges. Daly and the U.S. Open never really got along; the Wild Thing from Arkansas and the tea-sippers from northwest New Jersey might as well have come from different planets. The PGA, however, has a very different mentality. Golf’s fourth major has moved to second on the calendar, ostensibly to improve TV ratings and carve a stronger identity with America’s mainstream sporting public. Daly’s inclusion serves a valuable purpose in that respect.
The big boy isn’t going to win, so why not give him a cart? Why not accord a past champion with a certain level of respect and roll him out there like a parade float before the roaring masses at Bethpage? Daly’s psychedelic attire only adds to the visual. Between its onslaught of commercials on Thursday and Friday, TNT can burn up a couple of hours of meaningless airtime with a shameless sideshow.
John Daly, ceremonial golfer, playing on a bum knee and doing what he always has done best: making people react. It’s a playful little concession that you’d never see at the other majors, but as a past champ, he is not depriving anyone of a spot in the field, and it’s fair to say Daly will generate a lot more interest than, say, Ryan Palmer.
The PGA of America can become pretty self-indulgent when it comes to making money. I’m guessing that Sandra Day O’Connor and the fellas wouldn’t have sided with Martin 18 years ago if his attorneys had shown up with a pile of papers detailing the scourge of osteoarthritis. That’s not even close to what the decision intended, but that’s not to say the PGA looks like a bunch of buffoons for letting Daly ride, either.
“I hope I don’t get a lot of grief from the fans,” Long John Sensitive told the Associated Press. “My knee is screwed. I had my meniscus cut out. I can walk up a hill; I just can’t walk down one.”
The last quarter-century tells us that Daly goes downhill just fine, and he swears that he’d walk Bethpage if only he could. An ultra-common physical ailment is not sufficient grounds to make unique provisions for anybody to compete in a golf tournament, but John Daly isn’t just anybody. He’s one of the most popular players of the modern era. He’s eligible for this particular event. And maybe most of all, he really, really wants to be there.
Think of him as a special exemption with an asterisk. A humongous asterisk, no less.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org