FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — It was a glistening, 420-horsepower Cadillac Escalade that ferried John Daly to the distant 10th tee at Bethpage Black on Thursday afternoon, and a mud-spattered, 3.3 horsepower electric cart that he pointed down the fairway to begin his opening round in the 101st PGA Championship. His ride, like his career, a faded carbon of what it once was.
A man who quickly swaps vehicles deep in the Long Island woods might fall under suspicion of doing something illegal, but in the case of Daly it was merely something unsporting. And unsurprising.
The 1991 PGA champion is the first golfer to compete on wheels in a major championship since Casey Martin qualified for the U.S. Open in 2012. Martin has Klippel-Trénaunay syndrome, a debilitating and incurable condition that could eventually lead to amputation of his right leg. Daly has osteoarthritis in his knee, a wear-and-tear injury common among veteran golfers. Jack Nicklaus had it. So too did Tom Watson. Both had hips replaced. Neither requested a cart so he might compete in a major.
There is a huge difference between Martin using a cart due to an incurable condition and Daly using one for a treatable ailment. That’s not to suggest he isn’t in discomfort. Each time Daly dismounted his cart there was obvious evidence of a bum knee, but also a crummy health regimen. The cart had a cup holder for his large McDonald’s Diet Coke, but lacked an ashtray for his ever-present cigarette.
John Daly gets out of his cart on the third hole during the first round of the PGA Championship. (Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports)
Last summer Daly’s request for a cart at the U.S. Senior Open was denied by the USGA, a decision he accepted with customary grace (“I’ve had it with the USGA and the way they run their tournaments.”). He applied again this week under the Americans with Disabilities Act and got a green light from the PGA of America. The tournament organizers have accepted that Daly is entitled to use a cart, but his exercising that entitlement doesn’t sit well with some fellow competitors.
Like Tiger Woods. He was asked about Daly’s mobile major earlier this week. “Well, I walked with a broken leg, so….” he replied archly. One player warming up down range from Daly on Thursday wondered aloud if cart wheels on a soft course might adversely impact lies for those playing behind.
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But Daly is not a man easily cowed by the disapproval of others, public or private. That is apparent annually during the Masters, when he parks his bus in a Hooters lot close to Augusta National to hawk tacky merchandise and sign the buttocks of any woman eager for the ink (there was one last month). So he cruised Bethpage Black in a one-man ticker tape parade.
None of Daly’s fellow competitors actually believes he can win, or even contend. Since that epic win in 1991 he has accumulated 17 missed cuts and has withdrawn twice, to go along with just three top-50 finishes. His controversial cart won’t require a full charge since he’s unlikely to see the weekend. But competitiveness isn’t relative to fairness. There is a sentiment among Daly’s fellow pros that he is being permitted to make his usual half-hearted effort without even the burden of having to walk between bogeys (he made five of them Thursday in a dismal 75 that left him 12 strokes off the lead, tied for 112th).
Daly’s appeal is obvious, and amplified at a venue that bills itself as the “People’s Country Club.” In a game awash with tailored, rake-thin banalities Daly maintains a budget everyman mien. The bleached hair and wraparound shades. The belt straining at the loops. Today he wore pants adorned with Yankees logos — and that wasn’t even the most widely-loathed New York dynasty represented on his attire since his sleeve also carried the “Trump” insignia.
There were cheers, for sure. There always are, whatever his failings. But around the grounds at Bethpage Black there is also an unmistakeable sense that the Daly Show is a tired act, that he is afforded courtesies that his conduct long ago cost him any right to expect. Sure, he earned his spot in the field as a former champion, and he has been legitimately granted a cart. But professional pride and sportsmanship should have rendered moot a decision on availing himself of either.
“It sucks, getting old,” Daly observed the other day. He’s right about that. But even at 53 he remains proof that growing old and growing up are mutually exclusive.