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 yesterday 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 1995 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.”

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