- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) He plays guitar. He writes songs. He lists his biggest vice as chocolate, not alcohol. He doesn't feel compelled to use his driver on every hole.

He is John Daly, the new John Daly, and he returns to the Masters a changed man after a forced absence last year helped him put life, and golf, in perspective.

"This means more to me being here than probably any other year," Daly said yesterday.

Oh, he still has his fun.

After all, what other player's plans for last night included an autograph-signing party while sitting in a million-dollar motorhome in the parking lot of Hooters?

Problem was, living the way he played golf grip it and rip it and worry about the consequences later took its toll over the years.

One of the consequences was that Daly suddenly found himself outside looking in on the Masters.

His exemption earned when he won the 1991 PGA Championship and extended after his 1995 British Open championship expired after he missed the cut here in 2000.

When that round was over, he stormed to his car, not stopping for reporters or the few fans looking for an autograph.

"I hated playing that bad and wondering if I was going to be back here or not," Daly said.

So he shifted his focus.

This time, he's here on the merits of his top-50 standing in the world ranking, a system he bought into after writing it off as silly and useless at first, around the time he was falling to No.507 in those standings.

As his raucous, crowded practice rounds Monday and yesterday have shown, the fans are glad he's here the big-hitting Big Dog who took the sport by surprise 11 years ago, when he won the PGA as an alternate and gave the common man a true hero to cheer.

With the good times came the bad: stories of failed marriages, drinking binges, torn-up hotel rooms, gambling and the seeming indifference to the sport that made him famous.

But at 35, the native son of Rogers, Ark., insists he has changed.

"I'm sort of a late maturer in about everything," he said. "And that's held me back, I think, three or four years."

A new, successful marriage helped the maturing process. So did his decision to curtail drinking, cut down on sodas and get off the multiple medications that bloated him to 265 pounds and made him feel like "a rat."

The humiliation of the 2000 Masters helped, too.

He realized he had to play better or he would never be invited back. He started playing hard on Saturdays and Sundays even when he knew he didn't have a chance to win the tournament because "at least I could get some points."

"It made me grind and focus a lot harder than previous years," he said.

He did it for himself, for his family, for the ranking. And he did it for the fans who continue to make him one of the most popular players in the game, even though he hasn't won a tournament in the United States since 1994.

"It's just nice to be playing good golf for them," Daly said.

Daly has replaced gambling and drinking with singing, songwriting and playing guitar. (Chocolate is still a problem sometimes because "it's hard to turn down a big ol' piece of chocolate cake.")

Along with a few friends, Daly is working on a largely autobiographical album, due out in a few weeks. Among the songs are "Where I Am Now," "My Life," "I'm Drunk, Damn Broke and Ain't Got a Penny to My Name," and, of course, "All My Ex's Wear Rolexes."

"I sing it with my heart," Daly said. "I know I'm probably out of tune, but it's what everyone wanted, so I did it."

But Daly wants to be more than a music star. He wants to be in the hunt in another major, something that hasn't happened since he won the British in 1995.

"I think his story of coming back the way he has and devoting himself to the game, it's a great story and great to see because he's such a talent," Tiger Woods said.

Daly won $1.05million last year and won a tournament for the first time since '95 the BMW International on the European Tour.

He ranks 40th on the money list this year and 42nd in the world rankings. He drives the ball a PGA Tour-leading average of 309 yards. That's 13 yards longer than the next guy, Woods.

Despite the ballyhooed changes at Augusta nearly 300 yards have been added to the course Daly lists five, maybe six holes at which he wouldn't dare use a driver.

That's more than he would have listed in the past, but the new John Daly doesn't really mind.

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