"I usually put money in one of 'em until the sonofabitch hits,"
says John Daly as he mindlessly feeds another pair of $100 coins
into a slot machine at the Horseshoe Hotel and Casino in Tunica,
Miss. Daly's feeling lucky. That morning he had shot a six-under
65 in the second round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC
at Southwind in nearby Memphis, lifting him into a tie for
eighth. Now, in the afternoon, he's up a few thousand playing
high-stakes slots. This might not appear to be the most prudent
place for someone like Daly, a guy who ran up a $9 million
gambling debt, to be killing time between rounds, but this is the
new and improved John Daly. This version is lighter, wiser and
sober. "I used to gamble to try to make money, but I don't do
that anymore," he says, depositing another $200. "I come here to
The words are barely out of Daly's mouth when three sevens pop up
in sequence on the Red, White and Blue slot, and he brightens
considerably. "That's 16 grand!" he shouts. "Hey, B.J., show me
what you're working with!"
Daly steps back from the machine to exchange a high-five with
B.J., a bald, ursine Texan who won't give his name and says he's
registered with the IRS as a professional gambler. B.J. also says
he and Daly have been "like brothers" since meeting at a casino
in Philadelphia, Miss., eight months ago. Daly signs for the
$16,000 at the behest of an attendant, then hops to a different
slot machine. He lights a Marlboro Medium with his left hand and
starts dropping in coins with his right.
Daly, 35, has claimed before to have put his life on the right
track, then ended up in a train wreck. That could happen again,
but if his progress inside the ropes is any indication, he may
ride out this hot streak a while longer. On the heels of a
two-year stretch during which he plummeted to his lowest position
on the money list (188th last season) since making it through Q
school in 1990, Daly, the Tour's most mercurial talent, is in the
midst of a bona fide renaissance.
In Memphis he tied for fifth, only three shots behind the winner,
Bob Estes. It was Daly's best finish since he won the 1995
British Open, and even a closing 73--10 strokes higher than what
he had shot the day before, when he moved to within one of the
lead--couldn't take the shine off what he had accomplished in his
adopted hometown, where people have a history of canonizing
flamboyant performers with addictive personalities and weight
"It would've been nice to have won for my family and friends,"
Daly said, "but this is the best I've played here. It feels good
to play well and have a chance."
Two years ago Daly left this tournament and went directly into a
personal and professional tailspin. After missing the cut, he
stopped at a convenience store on the way home and quaffed a
12-pack of beer on the 185-mile drive home to Dardanelle, Ark.
That binge ended more than two years of sobriety and led to the
termination of the four-year, $8 million endorsement contract
Daly had signed with Callaway Golf in May 1997. The agreement
stipulated that Daly could not drink or gamble and that he must
submit to psychiatric counseling.
The divorce from Callaway was perceived as a major setback for
Daly, but he and his family insist that the breakup was the best
thing that could've happened, if only because he stopped taking
the prescribed antidepressants that he says sapped his strength
and caused him to gain weight. "For three years I'd been given
every kind of medication there was," Daly says. "I was like a
rat. Getting off them is the reason I'm a happier, more mature
person. I have so much more energy now. I've never felt healthier
in my life."
Callaway agreed to pay Daly's remaining $1.7 million debt, but
not Daly personally, as long as he didn't sign with another
manufacturer. The lost income made it difficult for Daly to meet
his financial obligations--he pays a reported $35,000 a month in
alimony and child support for his two daughters, Shynah, 9, and
Sierra, 6--but leaving Callaway gave him peace of mind. "You can't
have a ton of people telling you what to do all the time," says
Daly's father, Jim, a Realtor. "John always hated to be told what
to do. When he was growing up, if he didn't get his way, he'd
butt his head on the floor. Now his way is better than it used to
In the three months after getting off his medication, Daly
dropped about 30 pounds, but it took longer for his game to come
around. After withdrawing from last year's U.S. Open in the wake
of a first-round 83 that included a 14 on the final hole, Daly
missed the cut in seven consecutive starts. In late August, after
the sixth missed cut, at the Reno-Tahoe Open, Daly says he quit
drinking. To hear him tell it, it was an epiphany without
impetus--"I finally lost the craving [for alcohol]," he says--but
his 25-year-old fiancee, Shanae Chandler, says there was more to
it than that. "I'd rather not comment on what happened," she
says. "Let's say he did it for personal reasons. It was his
decision, and he has stuck with it."
Daly, who never lost his length and leads the Tour in driving
distance (301 yards) for the seventh season in a row, has always
eschewed caution on the tee. He took the same approach not long
after meeting Chandler in October 1998. A former 400-meter
hurdler at Houston who's also a recovering addict, Chandler was
in her senior year at Texas when mutual friends introduced her to
Daly. At Daly's insistence she halted her studies to join him on
the road. (She is finishing her Bachelor's degree in Austin this
summer.) Ten months after they met, Daly drove Chandler to the
top of Mount Nebo outside Dardanelle and proposed. "It really
surprised me," she says. "Was it a little too soon? I think so,
but I've never doubted that he's who I want to spend the rest of
my life with."
Having been swept into the vortex that is Daly's life, Chandler
joined him in unflattering headlines in April 2000, when they got
into a lover's quarrel in the parking lot of a McDonald's. The
spat had to be mediated by police, but no arrests were made. That
incident aside, Daly says Chandler, who will be his fourth wife
when they marry (no date has been set), is much different from
his last two wives, who he says took advantage of him. "Shanae
loves me and doesn't care about money," he says.
Last year Daly signed an endorsement deal with SoBe, a beverage
company, and later became a consultant for Hippo Golf, which
agreed to pick up where Callaway left off with respect to his
gambling debt. Meanwhile, Daly says, "I've fallen in love with
golf again." His play improved toward the end of last season--he
finished the year by making four straight cuts--and in November he
had a 110-yard practice range and putting green installed in the
backyard of his 7,000-square-foot house in Dardanelle.
Now the man who would often play competitively without hitting
balls before or after his round spends up to 10 hours by his
lonesome hitting nothing but pitching wedges. The practice shows:
Daly has made 11 cuts in 16 starts this year and after Memphis
stood 62nd on the money list, his highest ranking since March
Last Friday at the Horseshoe, Daly had planned to buy $10,000 in
coins and quit when he ran out of money, but five hours later the
machines wouldn't let him leave. "This doesn't happen, bud," he
says after winning another 16 large. That puts him up $85,000 on
the afternoon--"just like coming in 15th [at the tournament]," he
says--and he might have played right on through his tee time on
Saturday had he not promised to meet Shanae at their hotel at 8
p.m. "I haven't seen her in a week," he says. "That's the longest
we've been apart in 2 1/2 years."
As he walks away from the slots with all that money in his pocket
and a big smile on his face, it seems possible, even believable,
that this time John Daly might beat the odds. "Maybe he has
finally grown up," says a hopeful Jim Daly. "It's like that old
song: 'I've seen the light, I've seen the light/No more darkness,
no more night/Praise the Lord, I've seen the light.'"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Number 4? Chandler left school to join Daly on the road.
"I'd been given every kind of medication there was," Daly says.
"Getting off them is the reason I'm a happier, more mature