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'Long John' shows he's still got it

Posted: Monday, February 16, 2004

SAN DIEGO John Daly buried his face in his hands and cried, a winner again thanks to a shot that epitomizes his turbulent career.

In golf, they call it an up-and-down.

In life, Daly knows about that all too well.

With a 100-foot bunker shot that trickled within 4 inches of the cup, Daly birdied the 18th hole Sunday to win the Buick Invitational in a three-man playoff, his first PGA Tour victory in nearly nine years.

''It's the greatest,'' Daly said, fighting back tears. ''I've had a lot of ups and downs. Geez, this is sweet.''

For those who have followed the turmoil in his life, it was simply stunning.

Only six months ago, Daly was down in the dumps when he learned his fourth wife had been indicted on federal drug and gambling charges, just five days after giving birth to his first son.

His game was in disarray, plunging him to No. 299 in the world ranking.

His life was a mess.

But every time people write him off, Daly simply writes another chapter in one of golf's most amazing stories.

''I never doubted I could win,'' said Daly, who had gone 189 tour events without a victory.

His victory at Torrey Pines was in doubt until Luke Donald missed a 6-foot birdie putt, and hometown favorite Chris Riley's 5-footer for birdie horseshoed around the hole and spun out.

''I would have bet my life on that putt,'' said Riley, one of the best in golf with the putter. ''I take my hat off to Johnny. He's been through a lot. To see him win is great.''

Daly crashed the PGA Tour scene in 1991 by winning the PGA Championship as the ninth alternate. He picked up his second major on golf's most hallowed grounds, the '95 British Open at St. Andrews.

After both highs, he spiraled into incredible lows two divorces, two trips to alcohol rehab, rash behavior on the golf course that led the PGA Tour to suspend him, rumors of gambling and drinking.

Suddenly, it feels like another new start.

''He's had his troubles, and to come back to win ... nine years without winning on this tour, you could never tell with him playing that last hole,'' Donald said. ''Obviously, it was John Daly-esque.''

Daly laid up on the par 5 in regulation and had to settle for par.

Walking down the same fairway in the playoff, he told his caddie that anything inside 275 yards to clear the pond and he was going for it.

He had 262 yards, and he went for it.

His 3-wood found the right bunker, a daunting shot with the water behind him and his opponents in birdie range. Daly blasted out, then urged the ball on ''Go! Go!'' he yelled as it headed for the cup.

He hated to see Donald, and especially Riley, miss their putts. Still, this was a win Daly desperately needed.

''There was a lot of emotion,'' he said. ''It was kind of a relief that I won again.''

Daly won $864,000 for his fifth PGA Tour victory. He also won the BMW International Open in Europe in 2001, and took the Korean Open and Callaway's Pebble Beach event late last year.

Nothing compares to this, especially with a world-class field at Torrey Pines.

''This is the greatest victory,'' Daly said. ''I won two majors. Nothing can take away from that. But I've never won a tournament that Tiger Woods has been in the field. That feels good.''

Woods pulled within two shots until his driver failed him again. He closed with a 69 and tied for 10th, two strokes short of the playoff.

Phil Mickelson also made a big charge, with birdies on eight of his first 11 holes. He birdied the final hole for a 67, then waited nearly an hour to see if he would make the playoff.

He was among a half-dozen players who headed home when Riley holed a clutch 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe to finish at 10-under 278. Moments later, Donald joined him with a putt from almost the same spot.

Daly had a 35-foot putt to win in regulation, but it came up just short and he headed for his first playoff since beating Costantino Rocca at St. Andrews.

The victory will only bring more scrutiny on Daly his nightlife, his family problems.

He simply shrugged.

''I don't see how it can get any worse,'' he said. ''Everybody goes through ups and downs. Mine just happen to be talked about a lot.''

Daly entered with a one-stroke lead over Stewart Cink (76), but showed early this would be a wild day.

He hooked his tee shot so badly on No. 2 that it hit a cart path and was headed for the sixth fairway. Instead, it smacked a tree, ricocheted into a torrey pine, rolled along the branches and popped out back over the gallery's head and harmlessly into the rough on the same hole he started.

His next mistake got him, though.

His approach drew sharply over the green on the par-3 third hole and rolled into a hazard. He tried to hack out, but moved it only 3 feet, then blasted over the green and two-putted from 90 feet for double bogey.

That's when the fun began.

First came Mickelson, making four straight birdies until his round was derailed by a double bogey on No. 12.

Then came Woods, the defending champion, closing to within two shots until he missed four straight fairways and dropped two shots.

Woods was as impressed as anyone by Daly's latest comeback.

''He's had a lot of things happen to him we've all read about it and seen it,'' Woods said. ''It's great to have anybody who has gone through the things he's gone through and succeed.''



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