John Daly hates having to ride a cart at the PGA Championship, but his fans still love him

May 17, 2019

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — John Daly smashed his tee shot to raucous applause on the 10th tee at Bethpage Black on Thursday. The ’91 PGA champ was last off in his group, and as he watched his ball soar into the left rough, his partners, Y.E. Yang and Rich Beem, strolled off the tee and down the fairway.

Daly was left in their wake. That’s when he hopped into his roofless Club Car Tempo — a 107 sticker plastered on the side and Diet Cokes clanking around in the console — and drove around the left side of the forward tee. He handed out fist bumps and shook hands with the sign bearers before stepping on the pedal.

Twenty-eight years earlier and some 770 miles west of here, Daly was a nobody. Then he won the 1991 PGA Championship as the ninth alternate, becoming an instant folk hero. In the years since, Daly has had more ups and down than a Six Flags, and this week, on Long Island, he is confronting a new challenge.

Daly is navigating Bethpage Black in a golf cart, which he applied for (and was granted) through the Americans with Disabilities Act. He hates riding, he says. He’s only doing it because the arthritis in his knee is unbearable. He’s been chastised for the cart, too. Nick Faldo isn’t a fan, and Tiger Woods made a joke about it. Daly said on Tuesday he wished others had all of the facts before they commented, adding he’s been “bashed pretty good” for the wheels. He was worried about fan backlash, but that concern proved unwarranted Thursday.

John Daly cruises on his cart during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship.
John Daly cruises on his cart during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship.
Getty Images

“The fans were great,” said Daly, after shooting 75 with a noticeable limp in his gait. He said his right knee was the size of a softball and plans to ice it tonight. “Some of them, they are going to get on you, but 99.9 are great.”

Daly’s long-time girlfriend, Anna Cladakis, walked with him Thursday in Loudmouth New York Yankees shorts that matched her beau’s pants. She, too, was bothered by some of the negative criticism and, like Daly, implied that not everyone knows the facts.

“It wasn’t an overnight process, and I don’t think people understand that,” she said. “The application is a lengthy, extensive, legal medically reviewed process. It’s not anything he filled in overnight and said, ‘Hey, I need a cart.’ There are a lot of channels you need to go through. We’ve had seven surgeons, I don’t know how many MRIs. He’s gotta play golf. That’s his living.

“I don’t want to knock anybody, but I think the writers and the media have blown it out of proportion. The fans really have embraced it, and that’s all that matters to John. He loves his fan base.”

But Thursday didn’t unfold without a few bumps in the road, as Daly became the first pro to take a cart in a major since Casey Martin at the 2012 U.S. Open. The Black Course is walking-only for the public, so there’s not much in the way of existing cart protocol. The PGA supplied Daly with a map of suggested routes, but navigating isn’t easy with ropes and slopes and tens of thousands of fans. After putting out on the 10th green, Beem and Yang waltzed through the roped-off walkway from the green to the 11th tee as dozens of phones popped up to capture Daly coming through. They waited… and waited.

“Where’s John?” one teenager said to no one in particular. While his playing partners exited the green left, Daly had been forced to retreat to his cart to the right. By the time he got to the wheel, drove around the green and parked at the 11th, Beem had already teed off.

As Daly and Yang hit, one frantic volunteer was trying to determine where Daly would drive and where she should move the ropes. She figured it out, but Daly went around the other side anyway. The volunteer laughed. A hole later Daly made his way to the tee when a fan gave him an assist with the rope, lifting it over his head as Daily sailed under.

“He’s still a fan favorite,” said David Kennedy, 21, who made the trip in from Connecticut and didn’t care that Daly was in a cart. “He’s still a likable guy and he’s nice to all the fans.”

John Daly settles into his cart during the first round of the PGA.
John Daly settles into his cart during the first round of the PGA.
Getty Images

Much has changed since Daly won the PGA 28 years ago, when he drove all night from Memphis to Carmel, Ind., for a spot in the field. He won by three and the 25-year-old rookie was hailed as golf’s next superstar. He had a mullet and a mustache and gold chains and bracelets. He swung like he was made out of rubber and unleashed seven memorable fist pumps as he walked up the 18th fairway on Sunday, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t even sure how best to describe Daly his rookie year. “I don’t know who he reminds me of,” Nicklaus said. “I haven’t seen anybody who hit the ball that far.”

That win still resonates with Daly, who’s had only two top 10s in his 71 majors since (including a British Open title). But he’s never needed a cart at a major, until this week.

“Yeah, it’s very awkward,” Daly said. “It’s to a point where it’s almost embarrassing. I won the PGA and I’m a past champion and there’s no way I’m walking. But I just feel obligated and I really want to play.”

And fans still love to watch him play, because he’s infinitely more relatable than your average pro. He’s made mistakes, smokes too much and exercise, damn it, is for the birds. He sings and plays the guitar. He’s won millions and lost millions. He once hit six straight in the water and made an 18 (and birdied the next hole). After his ’95 Open win, he ate ice cream out of the Claret Jug. He’s thrown clubs, conducted interviews shirtless, written a book and had more on-course blowups than anyone can count.

Cladakis said she and Daly talked on Wednesday night about how to handle the opening round. With the cart fiasco settled, the plan was to stay focused and play Daly’s game. Plus, Cladakis reminded him, “New York fans love you.”

On Thursday, Daly had plenty of those fans on his side. On 11 he faced a 35-footer for birdie. As the putt tracked, the crowd grew louder. Daly raised his putter. He thought it was in. So did the fans. But it never fell. The crowd gasped.

“He still is a draw,” Cladakis said. “He still sells tickets.”

The fans agreed.

“For someone who definitely has no shot at winning the tournament,” said Kennedy, the fan from Connecticut, “this is definitely a good crowd.”