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Famous for his big hitting off the tee, golfer John Daly is one of the most recognisable figures in sport. He is also one of the most controversial, with his private life garnering plenty of headlines too. BT Sport 2, Tues, July 30th 10pm
When someone’s mantra is ‘Grip it, rip it and sip it’, you know it isn’t going to be dull. And it isn’t – it’s John Daly after all – the man is something of an institution. Part of the 30 for 30 series, Hit It Hard (named after one of the great man’s songs) does what it says on the tin. There is no room for compromise here. This guy has been through a lot, but he’s not feeling sorry for himself.
Directed by veteran documentarians Gabe Spitzer and David Terry Fine, Hit It Hard opens with the moment Daly burst upon the scene back in 1991 when, as the ninth alternate, he tore up the field to claim the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. With pencil-thin moustache, bleach blonde mullet and trousers that shouted louder than a Donald Trump Twitter rant, he looked like he had wandered onto the hallowed course by accident from some mid-western shopping mall. But he drove the ball further than anyone had ever driven it before, causing fellow competitor and long-time pundit David Feherty to say: “It was like watching a new species.” He wasn’t wrong.
Daly celebrated his win at Crooked Stick with a trip to the McDonald's drive-thru. "I couldn’t cash the cheque yet, so I really didn’t have any money," he reveals with a smile. It seemed that his moment had come. He was 25, virtually self-taught and looked set to dominate the world of golf for the rest of the decade.
But it didn’t turn out that way. Daly cut a troubled figure in his private life and it had a marked effect on his game. People talk of unfulfilled potential, such was the scale of his talent, but Daly insists that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “The lows cannot defeat the highs in my life,” he says. “I kind of love the way it turned out. I’m still just going to be John Daly. I’m going to hit it hard, I’m going to grip it and rip it. And I’m going to grip it and sip it. I ain’t changing.”
Circling back around
Before moving on from Crooked Stick, Spitzer and Fine take us on a whistle-stop tour of Daly’s formative years, from his dysfunctional upbringing to his time at the University of Arkansas. Born in California, his family moved to Arkansas when he was four. His penchant for heavy drinking started early, he reveals, but he made the golf team in college. When told to lose weight by the coach, Daly responded by losing 67lbs in ten weeks on a diet of “Jack Daniels, cigarettes and popcorn”.
He was nick-named ‘Wild Thing’ by the press for his antics and there are copious tales of drinking, domestic violence and gambling. Although he claims to have had a drink just once during a PGA event, he reveals that he often went out onto the course drunk from the night before. The golfing authorities were shocked, but his behaviour only cemented his place in the affections of the wider public as a relatable everyman figure who was tearing down the ivory towers of the establishment elite.
Over the course of his 25-year-plus career he has been suspended five times, ordered to rehab by the PGA seven times and fined on 21 occasions. Off the course, he’s been married four times and has, by his own admission, gambled away close to $100m. On one occasion, he reveals, he was so disheartened after missing a three-foot putt in a play-off that he drove to Las Vegas that same night and lost $1.65m playing the $5,000 slot machines.
Daly had only recorded two more tournament victories in the years following his 1991 PGA Championship triumph when he stunned the golfing world for a second time by edging out Italian Costantino Rocca in a play-off to win the 1995 Open at St Andrews. He was off the booze at the time, but had exchanged one indulgence for several others – namely Diet Coke, cigarettes and chocolate. He reveals that he celebrated his win at the home of golf with a feast of chocolate-chip muffins before filling the claret jug with chocolate ice cream and eating the lot. It would be his last win for nine years.
Nowadays Daly cuts a more benign figure on the PGA Tour Champions circuit. He remains hugely popular both with the public and his fellow pros alike. While he looks as though most of his troubles are behind him (he constantly credits long-time partner Anna Cladakis with turning his life around), he doesn’t exactly come across as someone who has found complete inner contentment.
Just like his golf career, it looks as though he has good days and bad days, ups and downs, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Still, he refuses to give up and for someone who claims to have gambled away $100m, more than double his career prize money, he hasn’t done too badly at all!
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