The Long Shot With the Long Swing: How John Daly found fame and kept it

July 19, 2006
from Guardian Unlimited

He smokes, likes his beer straight from the can, had a gambling problem, got divorced three times, can’t keep his weight down and spent time in rehab for alcohol addiction. John Daly might be a flawed hero, but America still loves him.

The US public’s infatuation with Daly began in 1991 when he won the USPGA title, despite starting the week as ninth reserve. He was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and media fawning followed. That same year, a politician by the name of Jerry Springer launched the show that would eventually make him the poster boy of trash TV. Springer originally covered serious current-affairs issues, but when ratings tanked the format was switched to the dirty-laundry-airing spectacle it became famous for.

As Daly was nursing hangovers and dealing with divorce court in the mid to late 90s, his professional career took a six-year tumble while fascination with celebrity scandal in America escalated. Tell-all television exploded, including daytime talk shows modelled after Springer’s, live courtroom footage and documentary exposés.

Around the same time, the TV programme Behind The Music became wildly popular for its over-the-top, dramatic portrayals of the rise-and-fall of music celebrities, with the emphasis on fall. The show covered bands – and the skeletons in their walk-in closets – around the world, including Boy George’s experiments with make-up, drugs and Culture Club drummer Jon Moss.  The show was addictive.

And so was watching Daly’s career. Even when his game returned from the abyss, controversy continued to come as naturally as his famous long swing. In 2003 his fourth wife, Sherrie, and her parents were charged with selling cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines and laundering the proceeds through local banks. Yet at every event he played in, Daly was cheered on. As always.

His willingness to bare all, as he does in a new autobiography, My Life In and Out of the Rough, only helps his man-of-the-people persona. In America, honesty is usually the best policy. Look at all the trouble Bill Clinton got into for trying to cover up unsavoury personal details. Having had an affair with an intern or gotten stoned in college is redeemable, unless you try to hide it. Sin is bad. But confession is absolution.

Most of Daly’s popularity is down to being a regular guy who still made it. Big. He represents the American dream, that no matter where you come from you can go as far as you like. Daly is far from alone in that. Sonny Bono, of 70s duo Sonny and Cher, became a top songwriter and congressman despite never having gone to university. Politicians know accessibility is key in the voting booth. In 2004, exit polls showed many voters admitting they’d rather grab a pint with George Bush than get cerebral with John Kerry. Platforms and agendas aside, they could relate to the laid-back Texan on a personal level. Vote cast.

The same is true with Daly and Tiger Woods. A minority background (his father was African American and mother is Thai) has led to lucrative commercial endorsements carefully balanced by charity projects such as The Tiger Woods Foundation. He is also, clearly, the No1 golfer in the world. Yet despite the consumer-driven atmosphere that is the hallmark of American culture, people are intuitively suspicious of slick, squeaky-clean celebrities too obviously primped by brand managers, especially when they come in nauseating pairs like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Americans are irresistibly drawn to penance, not perfection. As Morrissey exhorted in You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby, “You must suffer and cry for a longer time.”

Daly’s survival instincts and his readiness to share the pain, rather than force an image, are one of his biggest assets.  In America, “sinners” can go from winners to losers, fast. But it’s the kid next door who ends up on the telly and has more than a few pub stories to tell who truly wins hearts.