Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
If John Daly hadn't existed, nobody would've had the balls to invent him. He rocketed to fame in the 1991 PGA Championship as a 25-year-old nobody who began the tournament as the ninth alternate, who learned only at 2 a.m. the night before that he would even be playing that week. To watch "Hit It Hard," the hourlong "30 for 30" documentary on Daly debuting Nov. 1 on ESPN, is to remember anew what a novelty he was. Dardanelle's own, Daly projected country kid onto a country club game, becoming an instant folk hero. Then we spent the next 25 years watching him win at golf and lose so many other battles with himself.
We know the Daly at 50, the one who shows decades of hard living and hatless golfing on his craggy face. Under lights, in a garishly patriotic blazer, he explains his life as part confession, part matter-of-fact myth-spinning. He's contrite, for the most part, about the arrest for menacing his first wife during a drunken, house-trashing rampage. Yet he will explain his eight-figure gambling losses with a sort of shrug, explaining that high-stakes blackjack was a substitute for the adrenaline rush of golf tournaments. "Some people just never grow up, and I can say I'm probably one of 'em," Daly offers in the film.
Yet the filmmakers — David Terry Fine and Gabe Spitzer — seem less interested in a salacious dive into Daly's addictions than a reckoning with how those traits built Daly into the legend he became. The dude has gone through a couple of rough relationships — who hasn't? And, yes, the man enjoys a beer now and then, a tough situation when full-blown alcoholism overshadowed his considerable talent many times in the past 25 years. Also, he's smoked since his days at the University of Arkansas; what began as a way to keep his weight down turned into an emblem of rural rakishness when he was puffing a cig on the course, cornsilk mullet flowing, high-fiving fans as he walked between holes. Oh, and when he tried shutting off any of these vices, he turned immediately to chocolate. Also, he used to crush the ball off the tee like no one else. And he has released two country albums. Mostly, he seems like a pretty decent guy. Pulp novel stuff, this guy.
You can never quite trust Daly's hindsight, though. He fell in love with the times when he was a borderline mess, because his freakish talents brought him glory and fortune even as he was keeping a pretty steady buzz on. It's a trap to celebrate a self-destructive athlete for his self-destructive behaviors, but we all nurture nostalgia for the younger versions of ourselves who, above all else, did us the favor of surviving till now.
You see Daly now signing autographs and posing for photos, cigarette perched in his lips, by an RV in a Hooters parking lot, and you think, "There goes an American hero," but it's an exercise in melancholy to watch the 1995 British Open, Daly's other major championship win. The gusts at St. Andrews have his windbreaker slapping about like a sail, and his hair plastered across his skull as surely as if he'd discovered a comb. He won that day in grueling conditions, and only after his nearest opponent, Constantino Rocca, hit a miraculous 60-foot putt to force a four-hole playoff. Unflappable and strong, he was absolutely the best golfer in the world that week. You have to wonder how much more often Daly could've been the best, if he'd stayed sober and healthy throughout his career. And then you wonder whether, in fact, you would've much cared to watch that version of John Daly play golf at all.
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