INDIANAPOLIS — He was a 25-year-old blond guy, an unknown rookie golfer from the University of Arkansas. He was a last-minute, late-night drive-in for the next morning’s PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel.
It was a tournament John Daly didn’t think he would be playing in. He was the ninth alternate.
But the golf gods were with him as the other eight alternates dropped out. Daly was a player who came in that first day — not even getting a chance to practice on the infamously tough course designed by Pete Dye, 7,289 yards, the second-longest in PGA history — and he scored a 69.
On the second and third days, he was the pudgy character people started noticing as he smashed the ball, tearing up the course Jack Nicklaus said after three practice rounds was the most difficult he had ever played.
As that PGA Championship at Crooked Stick unfolded in August 1991, a growing legion of supporters awestruck and flabbergasted, lined each hole like a parade route. They roared and gave Daly ovations at every green.
Who was this guy, this guy that looked like he could be a used-car salesman, a bookie, a jovial uncle, that was taking over this competition of elite, seasoned pros.
“He had an Arnold Palmer-type reception out there,” Bruce Lietzke, who was paired with Daly on the third day of the championship, told the Indianapolis Star. “Especially on some of those iron shots that were up there a minute and a half and came down by the hole.”
That was it. Those long shots, the shots that eventually earned Daly the nickname Long John. They mesmerized people who watched.
And on Aug. 11, 1991, that blond bomber from Arkansas mesmerized and shocked the golf world: He won the PGA title.
“This is like a miracle,” Daly said after draining a four-foot par putt on the final hole. “It just doesn’t happen that often.”
‘A big PGA upset’
Thirty years ago, a photo of a determined Daly in a white polo and pleated khakis, swinging the club, was splashed on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It was Aug. 19, 1991, eight days after his win.
The words over his picture declared: “Long Shot: Big hitter John Daly in a big PGA upset.”
Inside, the article was titled “Over Drive: Belting mammoth tee shots, John Daly won the PGA with an awesome display of power.” The words captured the still stunned golf world.
“You don’t have to believe what happened at Crooked Stick last week,” John Garrity wrote. “You can accept as fiction the news that an unknown Arkansas pro named John Daly bludgeoned a golf course into submission on his way to a three-shot victory in the 1991 PGA Championship.”
People who watched at Crooked Stick were swearing Daly was golf’s next superstar, never mind that he didn’t win a tournament in three years at the University of Arkansas or, as Garrity wrote, “that his 300-plus-yard drives rarely found the fairways until last week.”
It wasn’t usual that a ninth alternate would get to play in a major championship and then topple the world’s most experienced golfers. And do so at the very last minute.
Daly had to drive all night from his home in Memphis to get to Carmel in time for the first round. And it wasn’t until the morning of the first day of the tournament that he knew for sure he was playing. Daly replaced Nick Price, who stayed home for the birth of his first child.
Before the tournament, Daly wasn’t a blip on anyone’s radar. England’s Nick Faldo and the United States’ Payne Stewart were heavy favorites to win the 73rd PGA Championship.
But then, this unlikely fellow, who wasn’t convinced he should even be there, stepped in and magic happened.
But first, tragedy struck.
Day one: A killer storm
Weather warning signs were put up on leaderboards about noon on the first day of the PGA Championship in 1991. Then a violent storm swept Crooked Stick.
A siren suspended play at 2:14 p.m. as players and caddies were transported to the clubhouse.
At 2:40 p.m., Thomas Weaver, 39, of Fishers died after being struck by lightning during the brief, but intense storm.
John Daly reacts while playing in the final round of the 73rd PGA Championship at Crooked Stick.
“It certainly doesn’t seem right that a man came to watch us play golf and now somebody has to tell his family he died,” said golfer Ken Green. “I guess when God wants you he’s going to take you. It’s just unfortunate that it happened.”
Hours after the tragedy, Arnold Palmer spoke to the media.
“I think every golfer out here feels very badly,” he said. “It’s a terrible thing. People say what are you going to do about it but there’s nothing we can do about it. You just hope everybody takes cover when they’re warned.”
The crowd for the first round was estimated at 15,000, a figure then-club president Michael Browning said might have been much higher had thunderstorms not been forecast.
At the end of the first day, Daly had shot a 69 and was in good standing, two shots behind leaders Kenny Knox and Ian Woosnam.
At the end of the first day, Daly had also been shaken.
That Fishers man who died left behind a wife and two girls, Karen, 8 at the time, and Emily, who was 12. “I felt I was almost responsible for him being killed,” Daly later said of that opening round.
After receiving his $230,000 check for the win in Carmel, Daly gave $30,000 of it away — for the education of Weaver’s girls.
‘He hits the ball in places nobody does’
As the second day of the championship dawned, Daly’s rise to “unknown hero” took off.
“He’s treating Pete Dye’s 7,280-yard monster like a pitch and putt course with his booming tee ball,” columnist Robin Miller wrote in the IndyStar.
Daly’s 5-under 67 in the second round shot him to the top of the leaderboard, 8 under par for the tournament. It included one eagle, seven birdies and long-distance drives that left his competitors shaking their heads.
“It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball like that,” said Wayne Grady, the defending PGA champion who was playing ahead of Daly all day. “I mean it’s amazing. He’s hitting 8- and 9-irons into holes where we are hitting 2- and 3-irons.”
Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin, Price’s full-time caddie, had never seen Daly until the first tee the first day of the championship.
“John has shown me a side of golf I don’t normally see,” Medlin said at the time. “He hits the ball in places nobody else does and he was a little hard to club at first.”
25-year-old rookie John Daly knocked in a putt on the final hole to win the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Golf Club, August 11, 1991.
Daly continued to be in wonder at his own good fortune.
“I haven’t really had a chance to win a tourney before, and I’m thrilled to be playing like this,” said Daly, who had spent the past four years trying to get on the Tour.
By Saturday’s round three, people were abuzz, utterly enamored with Daly. He birdied the 4th hole, 456 yards, with a huge drive, then took an eight iron and dropped the ball a foot from the hole.
On the 609-yard 5th hole, he came within 10 yards of reaching the green in two — even after his drive went right into the rough.
“The first two or three drives he hit, I wasn’t able to see,” said Lietzke of Daly’s play, “because the ball came off the clubface faster than I was used to.”
Yes. This Daly guy seemed to be the real deal.
“His play… ” Sports Illustrated wrote, “should get him into Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”
‘I’ve done this my way’
The night before the final round, Daly went to the Colts game versus Seattle at the Hoosier Dome “and got a bigger cheer than did the Colts,” IndyStar wrote at the time.
The next morning, Daly ran away with the win, shooting his worst round of the tournament, 71, but still winning by three strokes against Lietzke, five better than third-place finisher Jim Gallagher Jr. and six better than Knox in fourth place.
“It was a vindication of sorts for Daly, who taught himself to play on a nine-hole course in Dardanelle, Ark. (population 3,621), using balls he had fished out of a pond,” Garrity wrote.
A day after the championship had closed in Carmel, IndyStar’s Wayne Fuson called Daly “perhaps the most unlikely winner of a major tournament since World War II.”
Before Sunday’s $230,000 payoff, Daly had made $166,000 on the tour for the entire year. Few had ever heard of him. And then they fell in love, Fuson wrote.
“John Daly is different. He’s the kind of a kid gray-haired groupies want to adopt, the kind of a guy younger gals in the gallery want to take home for their own,” said Fuson. “And, he’s the kind of buddy guys down at the neighborhood watering hole would want to join for a few brewskies.”
— Tim Schmitt (@TMSGolfweek) August 17, 2021
After he hoisted the trophy, Daly talked about his unlikely rise to golf’s elite title.
“I can tell you one thing, I’ve done this my way,” said Daly. “I don’t have anybody to blame for this win but me, and I love it.”
Daly made the 1991 PGA something different, something special.
“The world’s greatest players were at Crooked Stick,” Fuson wrote, “but this 73rd PGA will be remembered forever as the one won by the Blond Bomber named John Daly.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.