He stood in the 18th fairway locked in a playoff and needing to airmail his golf ball 262 yards to clear a pond, which at that moment must have looked as wide to John Daly as the Pacific Ocean shining in the distance.
He'd gone through nine years, two wives and a second stab at rehab since he last won a tournament that mattered on U.S. soil. But Daly already had his mind made up.
Walking down that same fairway in regulation a few moments earlier, he laid up and settled for a par 5. This time, Daly told his caddy that anything inside 275 yards and he was going for it. And good as his word, Daly did.
Everybody who follows golf, and quite a few who don't, already know how the tale turned out. Daly crashed a 3-wood over the pond and into a greenside bunker, then blasted out to within 4 inches and made the tap-in birdie to win the Buick Invitational. That shot, called an up-and-down, decided the tournament and in the bargain, provided what appeared to be a perfect metaphor for Daly's life both inside and outside the tournament ropes.
But back up the videotape for a moment and consider the shot that preceded it, the one where the risk was every bit as spectacular as the reward. It was eerily similar to the climactic scene in the movie ''Tin Cup,'' when a broken-down pro named Roy McAvoy, played by Kevin Costner, refuses to lay up and stubbornly dumps ball after ball into the pond fronting the last green.
That's how real life usually plays out for guys like Daly. They butt their heads against a wall time and again and instead of a life-changing revelation, all they get for their trouble is another headache.
And so, for all the sweet things that followed his win in San Diego a moment of redemption, a pile of cash for someone who really needs it, and a handful of guaranteed exemptions into future tournaments the really compelling moment was the one when he demonstrated a willingness to risk it all.
Competitors like Daly and Darryl Strawberry or even Mike Tyson, for that matter, make great stories every time they resurrect their careers from the depths of some personal destruction. But the real fascination is not their limited successes so much as the limitless desire to crash and burn. Anybody who thinks Daly is a changed man because of Sunday's win didn't stick around to hear the press conference afterward.
He did say that being a father made him feel more settled, then quickly broke up the gathering by telling this story about a Saturday night conversation he had with his oldest daughter:
''Shaynah called me yesterday from Orlando and she was almost in tears, 'Daddy, you've got to win,''' Daly recalled. ''I said, 'What are you doing, Shaynah? Are you betting the kids at school or what?''
And a few moments earlier, a reporter reminded Daly that he smoked ''nine or 10 cigarettes on the back side,'' when the tournament got tight.
''I thought I smoked a pack, to tell you the truth,'' Daly said.
Asked if that was unusual, he just smiled.
''It was pretty much the same,'' Daly replied. ''My slogan is, who needs fitness when you have great equipment? And I'm sticking to it.''
Playing golf, and life, from the rough all the time has to be wearying. Daly's first try at rehab lasted all of a few days, which led one observer to describe it ''like a roadrunner going through a car wash,'' and judging by the way he still pounds down beers on occasion, it's clear the second try was only slightly more successful.
But for the moment, anyway, all that is beside the point. What matters is that Daly came to one of those ''what-if'' junctures in life, barreled through it and came out on the other side prepared to do it again. He took a shot for all those guys with more longing than sense, knowing better than anybody what would happen if he got wet, and he gripped it and ripped it, anyway.
Where his story goes from here is anyone's guess. After two major tournament wins, three on the PGA Tour and a handful of international victories on his resume, it's impossible to say whether Daly should still be considered the poster child for squandered talent or the best broken-down golfer of all-time.
But this much isn't in doubt: The real wonder of John Daly isn't that he keeps falling, but that every time he does, he picks himself up and moves on, undaunted by the prospect of falling again.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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