From an early age, Daly wanted golf to be his life, not just a hobby or a way to put himself through college. He dropped out of the University of Arkansas in 1987 to launch his career as a professional. In 1991 he came out of almost nowhere to win the PGA Championship in an unlikely turn of events. Nick Price had dropped out of the major because his wife was about to give birth, creating a slot for an alternate. The first round of alternates couldn’t make it, but Daly could. He threw his clubs into the trunk, got in his car and drove from Memphis to Carmel, Indiana to the Crooked Stick Golf Club. If nothing else, Daly figured, at least he could have a few drinks with his hero, golf legend Fuzzy Zoeller. He left Memphis on Wednesday, and by Thursday afternoon he was teeing off without a good night’s sleep or even a practice round. By Sunday he was the PGA Champion.
The big-money sponsorships and appearance fees that followed that pivotal day are likely behind him. While major tournament purses get bigger (the 2010 PGA winner Martin Kaymer received a check for $1.35 million, compared with Daly’s paltry $230,000 win in 1991), Daly’s chances of even making the cut become very slight. But his past is scattered with some vital wins: the 1991 PGA, a onetime comeback at the 2004 Buick Invitational and then the one he calls the most important, the 1995 British Open. “That’s the hardest one because the golf courses are so different. And it’s like Jack Nicklaus said, ‘If you win the British Open at St. Andrews, your golf career can’t get any more complete.’ Or something like that,” Daly says.
Daly has married four women, some with careful consideration, others on a whim. But the picture he paints is of four women who had all the flaws. The first was too young, he says. Then, he claims, the second was too dishonest, hacking 11 years off her age, telling Daly she was 27 when she was really 38, a significant age difference that Daly didn’t notice at the time. The third was too much of a homebody. The fourth one, Sherrie Miller…well, she was bad news from the start of their 2001 marriage. According to Daly, she wanted him to pay her $2,500 every time they had sex. “She was playing like a hooker. She wanted her husband to pay her to have sex with him,” he recalls. “How bad is that?” Daly is adamant that her body was gorgeous but she was horrible in bed. “She wasn’t worth a cent,” he says.
Miller also went to prison in Lexington, Kentucky in 2006 on a federal charge involving a drug ring and an illegal-gambling operation. Having a wife in federal prison would be the nadir of most marriages, but Daly insists she came out even worse than when she’d gone in. “She just wanted to party every night. She was out all the time. My seven-year-old son says ‘My mom’s never home. She’s always out,’ ” he says. Daly is still bitter. “It was a sad, sad marriage,” he says. “I held on as long as I could. I was the most miserable, loneliest man you could ever be.”
His new love, Anna Cladakis, has filled the ex-wives’ shoes for now, but Daly says he has no intention of marrying her. His complaint is one countless men have. He laments the faltering libidos of women after a wedding and a couple of kids. “You marry somebody, that’s one of the perks of being married—you get to have sex anytime you want it,” he explains. When his wives stopped giving it to him, he says, he’d flat-out tell them, “The hell with it. I’ll go get it somewhere else.”
“I’m real close to being a nympho, if I’m not one,” he admits. He and Cladakis try to have sex at least once every day. “If I’m with somebody, I want to be with that person. I wanna have sex a lot. Anna’s been great. We’re both nymphos, I think. We like each other’s company. We like making love to each other,” he says as his eyes wander to the front door of the remote Sheboygan Falls house he’s rented west of the golf course. “If somebody’s relationship is great, I don’t want nobody else.” Daly calls Cladakis the first woman in his life who truly loves him for him, not because of the celebrity status or money. On paper she’s just the latest in a long line of women who’ve come and gone through Daly’s life. But this time around he found love when he was not at the top of his game.
Aside from their shared hypersexuality, Daly seems just as effusive about Cladakis’s independence. She has her own life, a daughter, a house where they live together in Clearwater, Florida and a job. She says it, too. “I have my shit together,” she says defensively. When Daly met Cladakis, a few years ago, she was a promotional director with Hooters, one of his sponsors. She was also in the process of filing a suit against Outback Steakhouse chairman Chris Sullivan, her daughter’s father. Cladakis now receives an estimated $7,500 a month in child support, meaning that she collects close to $100,000 a year for raising her daughter. Sullivan testified in court that during one of their sexual encounters, Cladakis “removed the condom from me, saying I didn’t need that with her.” Daly himself seems to have wised up about the allure of love, lust and promises of forever. Marrying Cladakis wouldn’t be good for his sex life or his erratic financial highs and lows.
Daly estimates that his monthly expenses these days add up to a staggering $43,000. It used to be around $120,000, but with the sale of a couple of Hummers and some other asset reductions, he’s whittled his liabilities down. A bus payment of $16,500 every month is, to him, a necessity to get to tournaments. Then there are the child-support payments to two of his ex-wives for his two younger children. “Sherrie is probably $5,000 and Paulette is $2,000 a month. Two house payments, the bus,” he says with a heavy sigh. “It’s a grind.”
Cladakis tightened the reins on Daly’s legendary gambling, which saves him untold amounts. “Anna hates gambling,” he says as if he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Of all Daly’s addictions and excesses, gambling had the tightest noose on him. “If he had the money, the gambling might still be a problem right now,” says one friend.
It wasn’t just the simple gambling of the common man that thrilled Daly. It was how he played big. Vast amounts of money changed hands in his most moneyed years, from the tournament purses to the casinos, with Daly acting as the sieve. Every chance he had he’d retreat to the high-limit rooms upstairs at the Wynn or Bally’s or any other swanky casino in Vegas that would welcome him. A waitress would be at his side, the gawkers kept at bay. A balcony overlooking the pool awaited him when he needed to clear his head and strategize his next move. The risks felt less perilous when he was surrounded by the luxury he deserved.
Despite losing, by his own estimate, at least $50 million, Daly talks about the time he spent in casinos from Tunica, Mississippi to Las Vegas as if remembering his first love. “It felt better than golf,” he says, “because you’re sitting there and you don’t have to work at it. Gambling is adrenaline. You wanna beat the blackjack, you wanna win the slots. You get the adrenaline rush. I absolutely loved it. Bally’s was my favorite until they built the Wynn. That high-limit room? When I walk in there, I get that chill rush.” His first taste of playing and winning big was in the early 1990s, when he fell in love with the $100 slot machine in Tunica. “I was the first one to win the jackpot of $100,000. I won, like, three or four nights in a row, and I’m going, ‘I could never lose.’ Next thing you know, you lose $500,000.” He starts talking fast and furious, telling blackjack stories with the same gusto someone else might reserve for tales of catching monster tarpon. “Back when I was playing, you could play seven hands at $5,000 and have $35,000 on the table. Sometimes 10. You could have 70 grand sitting up there. You don’t have that chance on a dollar slot or playing $25 at blackjack. I won $400,000 to $500,000 in blackjack sittings,” he says mournfully.
Eventually mistakes were made. The losses started catching up with Daly. He used to have markers in six or seven casinos, he says. “I was always trying to pay markers off. I’d owe $800,000 at Bally’s or at Caesars. I was always robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he confesses. Then after Harrah’s bought up all the Vegas casinos he cherished, the company banned Daly for life. “I’ve written letters to try to get back in, but they don’t want me,” he says. That underscores Daly’s compulsive relationship with risk: He’d try to get into a club that didn’t want him as a member.
When he looks back on those gambling days, Daly is a paradox of self-love and self-loathing. Golf pro Fuzzy Zoeller says it best. He explains how Daly can love and loathe himself, and the world can do the same, but true fans and friends of Daly will always look beyond that. “He is a great young man, and deep down he has a big, big heart. Some people just see us when we’re out and about, but on tour, we know,” Zoeller says. “We see the other side of John Daly.”
Daly easily admits his gambling came at a high price but is more dismissive about his other addictions and the trouble they’ve created. In his 2006 New York Times best-seller, My Life In and Out of the Rough, Daly casually remarks that he was not exactly a poster boy for moderation. His binge drinking made him a textbook case of conduct unbecoming. There have been numerous emergency room visits for whiskey overdoses, a hotel-room trashing in South Africa, quickie Vegas weddings, fines from the PGA, a mandated tour hiatus and 18 days at the Sierra Tucson treatment center, an outpatient stop at the Betty Ford Center and a couple of serious suicide contemplations.
His first beer came when he was just eight years old, his first Jack and Coke at 14. Then, after a grape-stomping session turned their feet purple, he and his brother Jamie progressed to drinking the homemade wine their dad was making. “It actually tasted pretty good. It tasted almost like Kool-Aid. That’s why we each drank two jars. Man, were our heads spinning,” he recalls with a laugh. But, Daly reveals, his worst whiskey days came in college. His coach told him he needed to lose at least 60 pounds to play. “I didn’t like eating salads, so I ate dry popcorn and drank whiskey out of the bottle—straight Jack Daniel’s. I lost a ton of weight, and he still didn’t play me,” Daly says of his coach, Steve Loy. (Loy won’t comment on that incident or any of Daly’s other stories. But he does say Daly was in a bad place and not happy with most things in his life and that he hopes Daly continues to work on his health and vices.) “What’s funny about me is that people think I’m some raging alcoholic who drinks every day. I’d classify it as more of binge drinking. When I’d drink, I’d drink to get absolutely hammered,” Daly says.
“I never drank on a tournament. I’ve been hungover many times. I could play some damn good golf hungover,” he says with a laugh. “But not once have I ever drank on a golf course on tour.” If you subjected him to a random drug test right now, as he says the PGA did five times in 2010, all you’d find is a lot of caffeine, nicotine and a couple of Viagras every now and then. Daly knows the gastric band surgery he had in 2009 has everything to do with his 120-pound weight loss, and he nonchalantly admits it has also got something to do with his newly sober spirit. But Daly truly believes that he simply outgrew the bingeing. He grew weary of the late nights. “I just didn’t like to drink anymore. I don’t know why. I just like getting in and getting to sleep at a decent hour now and not hanging out with nothing going on. Everybody goes through that,” he says.
Glen Waggoner, co-author of both of Daly’s autobiographies, says that what went wrong with Daly’s kind of excess was that his abuse was extreme. “When you smoke and eat the way he did, then self-medicate with alcohol and beer, then get up and shake it off and play golf, it takes a toll,” he explains.
Not all of Daly’s obsessions had to go. There was no real need to quit sex. “I got my first piece when I was 17 years old, and then I was crazy about it,” he says. His sexual summit was during the 1991 Masters, when he and his second wife, Bettye, had sex 10 times in one day. He hadn’t qualified and was in a foul mood, so he got in bed with Bettye, turned on the last round of the tournament, turned off the sound and went at it. They listened to country legend Randy Travis and screwed like crazy. “For me it was a personal record,” he claims in his book. Then there was a girlfriend he met in 1998, who had a more fluid sexuality than Daly was used to and was open to threesomes. Daly speaks wistfully of those days. “She liked other women. I loved it. I’m not gonna lie. What man wouldn’t?” he asks. He claims he never touched the other girls. She would “do things” with the girls while he “did things” with her. “I loved watching her get it on with another woman. It’s beautiful,” he says.
Another story about her sounds like a scenario straight out of a soft-porn movie. She and Daly went to a club in Augusta, Georgia during Masters weekend in 2000. High-end strippers had been imported from Atlanta. Private rooms were available. They started calling in more strippers as though ordering rounds of Jack and Cokes. She took her clothes off, started dancing on the pole and again ordered in more strippers. Daly says, “This goes on for four or five hours,” sounding quite proud and not the slightest bit remorseful.
Nights like that weren’t an issue back then, because money was never an issue. Even with the gambling tribulations and casino-marker debt, Daly says, “money was nothing and it kept coming in and kept coming in.” There was a big deal with Reebok and one with Wilson. Wilson gave Daly a 10-year deal for $30 million but let him go in 1997. But he still had $9 million in his pocket. “I wasn’t used to that,” Daly says. He gave an ample supply away to help his parents, his siblings, his friends—and then people who, he says, would leech, leech, leech from him. “When I got a lot of money, I was trying to buy friends, I think. I was paying people to love me.”
The fans, though, seem to love him rich or poor. During the PGA practice round at Kohler, Daly never said no to a fan wanting an autograph, nor was he sanctimonious about the disruptions. Instead, he appeared to be basking in the adoration, which would fuel his next hole. The steady stream of encouragement came not just from spectators but from tour marshals as well. “Go get ’em, John,” “Nice job at the British, John,” “Good luck, man,” “Love your pants,” “Bring back the mullet, buddy” and “You’re not stuck up like the other guys, Mr. Daly.” In one round of golf he signed about 30 autographs at each hole.
As Zoeller says, the fans seem to be able to see the other side of Daly, the side that has a passion for more than just the game. He has squandered some years, but Daly’s gift for golf is the thread that connects the highs and lows. He remembers having the same daydream over and over as a kid. “I would always dream about me and Palmer or me and Nicklaus coming up the 18th hole when I was practicing as a young kid. ‘I gotta make this 20-footer to beat Jack or Arnold or Watson or Fuzzy,’ ” he says, praising the Bay Ridge Country Club for being his milieu to play out his boyhood fantasies. “You know, every sport has boundaries, but in golf there’s a lot more of them. You got OBs, you got hazards, you got lakes, you got layups. It’s not like tennis, where you see the court and you just gotta keep it in that little bitty square. In golf, you’re looking at 300 acres sometimes, and every hole is different,” he explains. “Every boundary is different.”
As Daly glances at the guitar he has leaned against the couch, he smiles. Country music, even just the talk of it, is his favorite subject. He rattles off his favorite singers, such as Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He talks about playing his own country music live and recording a little, but really, he’s trying hard to get the hang of songwriting, he says. “I’m usually on my bus, and I have a lot of downtime. You write it, you sing it,” Daly says. Daly’s friends Kid Rock and Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish, who have both had success in country music without taking the straight-to-Nashville path, always told him to write everything down on a music pad. And Mark Bryan, another member of Hootie, thinks that’s what makes the music on Daly’s most recent album, I Only Know One Way, good. “This is not about having a bunch of Nashville cats behind him. It’s about his sincerity,” Bryan says. “He has this all-or-none attitude. He bares his soul.” Daly may be slim and sober now, but Bryan says that has little to do with his personality. Drinking didn’t make him who he is. “A little less crazy, a little less apt to go to a strip club at two a.m.,” is how Bryan describes him now. “But you’d never be able to change the intrinsic character that is John Daly. He’s John Daly, regardless.”
The only addictions Daly still clings to are Marlboros and Diet Coke. From the early-morning tee time till he finally goes to sleep, not much stops the constant back-and-forth of both. He claims he goes through at least 15 Diet Cokes and two packs of Marlboros a day. When he finishes one Diet Coke, the can becomes an ashtray for his next cigarette. Daly gives in to these last two cravings, plus one more: a postgame soak in the tub. It is the refuge he deserves, despite what the day brings.
If you could see Daly naked as he emerges from the bathwater, you’d see two small scars. The first is on his right shin, from a blow with a sand wedge that Daly says Loy delivered in college. The second is where a port sits under the skin in his abdomen, from the gastric band surgery. Those two scars may fade in time, but the ones on his psyche are permanent. They come from a life lived by putting himself first, and while they’ve taken some of the swagger out of him, they’ve left plenty of ego intact. So by the end of PGA Championship week in Kohler, Daly has withdrawn from the tournament, claiming he tore his rotator cuff on a bunker shot on the first hole. It turns out it isn’t torn, just sprained. Regardless, he is not going to make the cut at the last major of the year. And that’s not a score a man like Daly wants to post.