INDIANAPOLIS – He was a 25-year-old blonde guy, an unrecognized freshman from the University of Arkansas. He was a last-minute, late-night drive-in for the PGA Championship the next morning at the Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel.
It was a tournament that John Daly didn’t think he would play. He was the ninth substitute player.
But the golf gods were with him when the other eight substitutes were eliminated. Daly was a player who walked in that first day – didn’t even get a chance to practice on the infamous hard course designed by Pete Dye, 7,289 yards, the second longest in PGA history – and he scored a 69.
On days two and three, he was the chubby character people noticed when he smashed the ball and ripped open the course that Jack Nicklaus said after three rounds of practice was the toughest he had ever played.
When the PGA Championship took place on the Crooked Stick in August 1991, a growing crowd of fans lined up in awe and amazed every hole like a parade route. They roared and gave Daly an ovation on every green.
Who was this guy, this guy who looked like he might be a used car salesman, a bookmaker, a jovial uncle who took on this contest of seasoned elite professionals.
“He had a reception out there like Arnold Palmer’s,” said Bruce Lietzke, who was paired with Daly, the Indianapolis star, on day three of the championship. “Especially with some of those iron shots that were up there for a minute and a half coming down the hole.”
That was it. Those long shots that eventually earned Daly the nickname Long John. They hypnotized the people who were watching.
And on August 11, 1991, this blonde Arkansas bomber fascinated and shocked the golf world: it won the PGA title.
“It’s like a miracle,” said Daly after lowering a four-foot par-putt on the final hole. “It doesn’t happen that often.”
“A Big PGA Annoyance”
Thirty years ago, a photo of a determined Daly in a white polo and pleated khakis brandishing a bat was splattered on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was August 19, 1991, eight days after his victory.
The story goes on
The words above his picture said, “Long Shot: Big Hitter John Daly in a Big PGA Upset.”
The article was titled “Over Drive: Belting Mammoth Tee Shots, John Daly won the PGA with an impressive show of force.” The words caught the still stunned golf world.
“You don’t have to believe what happened at Crooked Stick last week,” wrote John Garrity. “One can take the news as fiction that an unknown Arkansas professional named John Daly beat a golf course into submission on his way to a three-shot victory in the 1991 PGA championship.”
The people who watched Crooked Stick swore Daly was the next golf superstar, regardless of whether he won a University of Arkansas tournament in three years or, as Garrity wrote, “his 300-yard drives Fairways rarely found the right thing until last week. “
It was not common for a ninth substitute to play in a major championship and then overthrow the world’s most skilled golfers. And that at the very last minute.
Daly had to drive from his Memphis home all night to get to Carmel in time for the first lap. And it wasn’t until the morning of the first day of the tournament that he knew for sure that he was playing. Daly replaced Nick Price, who stayed home for the birth of his first child.
Before the tournament, Daly wasn’t on the radar. Englishman Nick Faldo and American Payne Stewart were big favorites to win the 73rd PGA Championship.
But then this strange guy stepped in, not convinced he should be there at all, and magic happened.
But first a tragedy occurred.
John Daly reaches the fans on his way to the 10th tee of the 1991 PGA Championship finals.
Day one: a killer storm
On the first day of the 1991 PGA Championship around noon, weather warning signs were placed on the leaderboards. Then a violent storm swept over Crooked Stick.
A siren interrupted the game at 2:14 p.m. as players and caddies were transported to the clubhouse.
At 2:40 p.m. Thomas Weaver, 39, of Fishers died after being struck by lightning during the brief but intense storm.
John Daly reacts as he plays the Crooked Stick in the finals of the 73rd PGA Championship.
“It sure doesn’t seem right that a man came to watch us golf and now someone has to tell his family that he died,” said golfer Ken Green. “I think if God wants you he will take you. It’s just a shame it happened. “
Hours after the tragedy, Arnold Palmer spoke to the media.
“I think every golfer out here feels very bad,” he said. “It’s a terrible thing. People say what you are going to do about it, but there is nothing we can do about it. They just hope that everyone will take cover when warned. “
The audience for the first round was estimated at 15,000, a number that, according to then-club president Michael Browning, would have been much higher if no thunderstorms had been predicted.
By the end of day one, Daly had shot a 69 and was in good standing, two shots behind leaders Kenny Knox and Ian Woosnam.
At the end of the first day, Daly had also been shaken.
This Fishers man who died left behind a wife and two girls, Karen, then 8 years old, and Emily, who was 12 years old. “I felt almost responsible for killing him,” Daly later said of this opening round.
After receiving his check for $ 230,000 for the Carmel win, Daly gave away $ 30,000 of it – to educate Weaver’s girls.
John Daly plays a shot during the 73rd 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Indianapolis. (Stephen Munday / Getty Images)
“He hits the ball in places that nobody does”
As the second day of the championship dawned, Daly’s rise to become an “unknown hero” began.
“He treats Pete Dyes 7,280 yard monsters like a pitch-and-putt course with its booming tee,” wrote columnist Robin Miller for IndyStar.
Daly’s 5-under 67 in the second round brought him to the top of the leaderboard, 8 under par for the tournament. It included an eagle, seven birdies, and long distance drives that made his competitors shake their heads.
“It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball like that,” said Wayne Grady, the reigning PGA champion who played in front of Daly all day. “I mean, it’s incredible. He hits 8- and 9 irons in holes where we meet 2 and 3 irons. “
Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin, Price’s full-time caddy, had never seen Daly until the first tee on the first day of the championship.
“John showed me a side of golf that I don’t normally see,” Medlin said at the time. “It hits the ball in places no one else does and it was a little hard to hit at first.”
25-year-old rookie John Daly putted a putt on the final hole to win the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club on August 11, 1991.
Daly continued to wonder at his own happiness.
“I’ve never really had a chance to win a tournament and I’m really excited to play like that,” said Daly, who had spent the past four years getting on the tour.
In the third round on Saturday, people were excited, totally in love with Daly. He boggled the 4th hole, 456 yards, with a huge drive, then picked up an 8 iron and dropped the ball a foot away from the hole.
On the 609-yard 5th hole, he reached the green in two to ten yards – even after his drive went straight into the rough.
“I couldn’t see the first two or three hits that he hit,” said Lietzke of Daly’s game, “because the ball went off the clubface faster than I was used to.”
Yes sir. That Daly guy seemed like the real deal.
“His piece …” wrote Sports Illustrated, “should get him into Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
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“I did it my way”
The night before the finals, Daly went to the Colts-Seattle game at the Hoosier Dome “and got a bigger cheer than the Colts,” IndyStar wrote at the time.
The next morning, Daly ran away with the win, shooting his worst round of the tournament, 71, but still won three strokes against Lietzke, five better than third-placed Jim Gallagher Jr. and six better than Knox in fourth place.
“It was kind of a justification for Daly teaching himself to play with balls fished out of a pond on a nine-hole course in Dardanelle, Ark. (Population 3,621),” Garrity wrote.
The day after the championship in Carmel ended, IndyStar’s Wayne Fuson named Daly “perhaps the most unlikely winner of a major tournament since World War II.”
Prior to Sunday’s $ 230,000 payout, Daly had made $ 166,000 on the tour throughout the year. Few had ever heard of him. And then they fell in love, wrote Fuson.
“John Daly is different. He’s the kind of kid gray-haired groupies want to adopt, the kind of guy that younger girls in the gallery want to take home for themselves, ”said Fuson. “And he’s the kind of buddy who’d like to join a couple of breweries down at the neighborhood pub.”
After lifting the trophy, Daly spoke of his unlikely rise to the elite title of golf.
“One thing I can tell you, I did it my way,” Daly said. “I have no one responsible for this win but myself and I love it.”
Daly made the 1991 PGA something different, something special.
“The world’s greatest players have been to Crooked Stick,” wrote Fuson, “but that 73rd PGA will forever be remembered as the one won by the blonde bomber named John Daly.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Contact them by email: [email protected]