John Daly brings common touch back to PGA championship

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C.—For many of those who drew the placid morning session, Thursday's first round of the PGA Championship was just a day at beach.

For one player in particular, it was even a Gulf Shores, Ala.-style romp, about as much fun as an outing at Shrimpy's Arcade and Mini Golf.

John Daly, he of the Ringling Brothers wardrobe and country-song career, took utmost advantage of the spongy greens and the rare window of seaside calm. His first-round 68 was the lowest PGA Championship round in five years for the tournament's 1991 winner, leaving him just two shots off the lead. He had his gallery howling like they were all 20 years younger.

"They were getting good and loud on the back nine today. I love it. I don't know if too many players do, but I love it," Daly declared after the round.

Before Thursday, the 46-year-old Daly had been staging a rather subdued comeback attempt. Having lost his PGA Tour card, he had taken to the world stage, playing this year in seven events overseas from India to Qatar, Morocco to Sicily. In those few domestic events he entered on various exemptions, he smoothed out the extremes that so often marked his play. Only one of his 33 PGA Tour stroke-play rounds has been in the 80s, and he has made cuts in eight of 10 outings.

Said the four-times divorced Daly, who has done regular battle with the vices of drink, sloth, gambling and gluttony, to name a few, "I don't think I'm that far [from playing well]. I don't think any of us are who are fighting to get our cards or fighting to win. I just believe if I keep telling myself I'll get to where I want to be instead of being negative."

Where exactly does the two-time major winner wish to be at this stage of life? "I want to be here, playing our tour. I want to be like everybody else in the top 50 and getting that free money in the World Golf Championships and be in all the majors and getting sponsors — big, big sponsors — and stuff like that."

Currently, he reps a company that manufactures golf pants that violate most local noise ordinances. Other sponsors adorning him included a company that makes commercial mowers and a Chevy dealership.

Daly was not even the fattest guy on the leaderboard, thanks both to the lapband surgery he had in 2009 and the 6-under 66 shot by hefty Swede Carl Pettersson. The first-round PGA Championship leader has tried to lose weight — dropping 30 pounds in 2009. But, as he succinctly put it, "My golf game sucked, and I put the weight back on."

Born in Gothenburg, Pettersson may nonetheless have something of a home-area advantage. He has grown as Carolina as vinegary barbeque. He went to North Carolina State, still lives in Raleigh and is the defending champion of the PGA Tour Hilton Head stop. This was the first time he broke 70 in 21 PGA Championship rounds.

Pettersson and Daly were two of 44 players who went south of par Thursday (25 of them coming from the pre-noon tee times, before the wind inevitably picked up). So much for the "hardest course in America" designation laid on Kiawah's Ocean Course by Golf Digest. But no course relying so heavily on prevailing winds could fairly defend itself when the breeze momentarily went pfffft.

"We knew when we woke up this morning that today was going to be a day you had to go out and get one [a low round]," said Gerry Woodland, tied for second at 5 under.

In all there were 24 players in the 60s and within three shots of Pettersson's lead. Not among that number was Phil Mickelson, who shot an opening-round 73 while hitting seemingly every swale and waste area that Pete Dye inflicted upon this land.

Among the more prominent members chasing Pettersson were last year's PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley (68), world No. 3 Rory McIlroy (67), fellow colorful Irishman Graeme McDowell (68), British Open meltdown victim Adam Scott (68) and former Georgia Tech player Cameron Tringale (69).

Also in that group lurked Tiger Woods, who managed a 69 despite taking little advantage of the vulnerable par-5s. He played them in 1 under, while, in contrast, Daly played the four in 4 under.

It is indeed a rare day when the wind doesn't blow on Kiawah and when Daly dominates the conversation. Woods, too, was caught up in the reverie, remembering being only 13 and playing with Daly for the first time. That day, Woods said, Daly hit a ball so hard he actually knocked it out of round.

"I have always been a John Daly fan and friend," Woods said. Yes, someone spending this week on a yacht can also feel kinship with the Daly revival.