- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

Golf’s prodigal son is attempting an overseas salvage operation. While most fans were focused on Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson and the Stadium Course at Sawgrass last weekend, the game’s once-favorite sideshow pitched up in Italy and nearly trumped the PGA Tour’s marquee event.

Closing with a 66 in Turin, John Daly finished tied for second at the BMW Italian Open, notching his first top-10 in any event since Woods clipped him in a playoff at the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship.

The performance in Italy marked his third made cut in four starts this season on the European Tour, Daly’s temporary home while he serves the final weeks of a six-month PGA Tour suspension handed down by commissioner Tim Finchem following Daly’s latest brush with scandal.

On Oct. 27, Daly passed out in the parking lot outside a Hooters in Winston-Salem, N.C., and police took the intoxicated golfer to jail for a safe night’s sleep. Unfortunately, somebody in the department leaked a booking photo of a bloated, boozy Daly in an orange jumper. The picture was an instant Internet sensation. And though Daly was not officially charged in the incident, the tour felt compelled to take action, suspending the game’s black sheep until June for conduct detrimental to the tour.

The two-time major champion called the suspension the low point in a career sabotaged by deep personal valleys: three trips to alcohol rehabilitation clinics, four failed marriages, multiple suspensions and fines and millions in gambling losses. His sponsorship with Hooters dissolved and his entire life in foreclosure, Daly seemed to understand that his European exile could be the final chance in a life defined by mulligans.

“I don’t know if this is the last chance or not, but I love golf and I love to play the game and be very competitive, and that’s what keeps me going,” Daly said leading up to this week’s Irish Open.

In preparation for his reclamation project abroad, Daly made major changes to his body, swing and even his wardrobe. He underwent gastric banding surgery in March in hopes of curbing the binge eating and drinking that have defined his adult life. He has since lost nearly 60 pounds and drastically reduced his alcohol use, proclaiming the operation among the best decisions in his life.

Now weighing just over 200 pounds, Daly has adopted a bold new look on the course, signing on to wear the brash sartorial designs of Loudmouth Golf in exchange for a small percentage of the company.

And following the somewhat unseemly demise of his brief relationship with swing instructor Butch Harmon, he has enlisted the help of Phil Mickelson’s former coach, Rick Smith, to tweak his unorthodox swing.

“I’ve never really had a teacher, but Rick has been keeping things simple,” Daly said. “I love the way I’m hitting the ball.”

The result has been Daly’s most consistent run of play since 2005. Sure, Daly is still leading the European Tour in driving distance (317 yards). But gone are the disastrous holes that used to typify his play. Last week in Italy, he didn’t make a single double bogey or suffer a single three-putt, posting an unthinkably steady set of scores (69-69-69-66) en route to joint silver.

In only four starts on the European Tour, he arrives at this week’s Irish Open ranked 79th on the tour’s money list ($187,271) with at least two more starts remaining on his overseas schedule (BMW PGA Championship, European Open).

Daly hopes to make his return to the PGA Tour at next month’s St. Jude Classic (June 11-14) in Memphis, Tenn., but would need a sponsor’s exemption to do so. His attendance would boost the profile of any event, and almost any tournament would be happy to oblige him with a slot in the field.

Finchem and PGA Tour officials are admittedly keeping close tabs on Daly’s performance in Europe. Over the next three weeks, his play on the course and comportment off it likely will go a long way toward deciding his future in the United States.

“We’ve always been supportive of John,” Finchem said Wednesday. “I’m sure he’ll be back. I’m not sure when, but all indications are that he’s made real progress. Our people are in close touch with him, so we’ll see what develops.”

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