Even on an overcast, rainy and unseasonably cool Friday morning, John Daly was easy to recognize, as he always is, by the full head of bleach-blond hair and those preposterous pants.
To someone attending the Sanford International presented by Cambria who’d never seen Daly before, or knew nothing of the art involved in being no one other than himself, those pants would be a big deal.
To his loyal followers, it’s just one part of an endearing, entertaining and approachable package. He plays the guitar and sings, for one thing. It’s something he demonstrated during a memorable Sanford International pre-tournament event at the Sanford House in 2018.
He’s a golfer first, though, and a folk hero second. He asserted this on Friday with a two-under 68 that put him near the leaders in the first round of the tournament. Then he made that point again on Saturday with a second-round 66 that kept him in contention and finished at eight under par for the tournament.
While many of those following him were doing so just because he’s John Daly, those same fans were also seeing some good golf.
Daly’s cancer diagnosis
The golf world learned last week that this two-time major winner is now also dealing with bladder cancer. On Friday afternoon he was, true to form, honest and open about a diagnosis many would share only with family and close friends.
“The doctor didn’t tell me to just sit at home,” Daly said. “He didn’t really tell me to play, either, but I can’t just sit at home. My mind would make me feel worse.”
The short media session after Friday’s round at Minnehaha Country Club was a reminder that what you see is what you get with Daly. In this case, that meant a fine round of golf followed by a candid assessment of his health.
“The doctors were pretty cool about how they explained it,” he said. “They told me I had bladder cancer but it was one I could beat. I’ll have to change some things in life, but I can beat it.”
Daly had been suffering with kidney stones and back pains recently. On a recent trip to the doctor to address those issues he learned he had another problem.
He had surgery to remove the cancer shortly thereafter, followed by chemotherapy. He was told there is about an 85% chance it will return and he may very well need surgery again.
“The good news is it wasn’t in the kidneys and it wasn’t in the liver,” Daly said. “A lot of people have had it and a lot of them have made it. … I only smoked six cigarettes today. Normally I’d smoke about a pack and a half. I’m trying to slow everything down.”
The outpouring of support from his loyal followers has been immense. On his best day he could expect strong support from the fans at the Sanford International. With a difficult diagnosis now public, he gets more cheers.
“I love them,” he said. “The cool thing about social media is that, when you put something out there like that, people are telling me they’ve had the same thing. … I had about 30 people tell me they had it and were now cancer-free. It is what it is and I’m going to do whatever I can — whatever the doctor tells me to do.”
Many of those following him on the course were not aware that Daly’s diagnosis had become national golf news.
Kyle Knudson and Sam Schipper are fans from the area who were following Daly’s round early on. They saw him drain a putt on the first hole for a birdie, then just miss a birdie putt on No. 2 after hitting a 221-yard five-iron close to the hole.
“He’s extravagant,” Knudson said. “He wears wild pants, smokes cigarettes and drinks and just has a good time on the course. That’s John Daly.”
Though Daly is now on doctor’s orders to take it easy with two-thirds of that trinity, it remains, for better or worse, part of the brand he’s built for himself since winning the PGA Championship in 1991 as a 25-year-old unknown.
“Everything he does is a little over-the-top,” Schipper said. “The way he acts he seems like a good guy who has a good time on the course. I think he likes what he does. You have to appreciate that.”
The Sanford International was enjoying a good week based on entrants because it includes well-known legends like Ernie Els, Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer. There are 17 players in all at the event who have won at least one of the four major tournaments on the PGA Tour.
Daly has two of those major tournaments. While knee and back problems have slowed his ability to compete at times since joining the PGA Tour Champions in 2016, his impact remains significant. It is especially true in places like Sioux Falls, where he’s played every year since the tournament began.
“John Daly’s a great ambassador for golf,” said PGA Tour Champions president Miller Brady. “The crowds and spectators love seeing John play golf and John loves being out here and he loves the fans. So having fans back will be a great treat for everyone this week.”
A lot of them will be pulling for Daly, who has always made his own unique kind of impression on this game and the people who follow it.
“He seems pretty level-headed in his personality these days,” Knudson said. “But there’s still a little bit of a wild card about him. Otherwise he wouldn’t be wearing those pants.”
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