FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — On the fourth hole of his opening round of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black on Thursday, John Daly drove his cart down the right side of the fairway and stopped unexpectedly.
Daly, the 1991 PGA Championship winner, reached into his right pocket and pulled out a cigarette — his third of the round.
After hitting his second shot on the par-5 13th hole, a fan outside the ropes shouted, “Good shot, baby. How’s the knee feeling?”
“Like s—,” Daly said.
That’s how it went for the 53-year-old Daly, who was the only one in the 156-player field allowed to use a motorized cart, after the PGA’s American With Disabilities Act committee granted him permission because of osteoarthritis in his right knee.
Using a cart to navigate his way around the seven-mile course didn’t seem to give him much of an advantage, as he finished with a 5-over 75.
“It’s very awkward,” Daly said. “It’s to a point where it’s almost embarrassing. But I love the PGA, and I’m a past champion. There’s no way I could walk it. But I feel like I belong to play since I’m a past champion, and I just feel obligated. I really want to play.”
Daly said he has also applied for permission to use a cart at The Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Island in July. He hasn’t yet received an answer from The R&A. Daly said he won’t be able to play in Northern Island without one.
“Trust me, if I could walk, I would walk,” Daly said. “I’ve always felt like I play better when I walk. I’m not one that wants to ride all the time. It’s just that if I don’t, I’m not going to be able to play.”
After playing 18 holes with a cart at Bethpage Black on Thursday, Daly said his right knee was about the size of a grapefruit. He said his only remedy is icing the knee. Doctors have told him he’s too young to have knee replacement surgery, and warned him that the arthritis would return.
“I know some grief has been given about it, and I keep my point of view to myself, but he’s in pain,” said Rich Beem, the 2002 PGA Championship winner, who played with Daly on Thursday. “He’s literally in pain. I saw him getting into that bunker on 17, and I thought he might go down getting into it. He’s out there battling.”
Despite having not won on the PGA Tour since the 2004 Buick Open and playing mostly on the PGA Tour Champions for players 50 and older, Daly was still a crowd favorite on Long Island. He showed up a few minutes late for his opening tee shot wearing New York Yankees-themed pants and golf shoes.
Daly double-bogeyed the treacherous No. 10 hole to start, before steadying himself and producing pars on the next three holes.
On the par-4 12th, Daly hit his tee shot 279 yards down the right side of the fairway. A fan screamed, “All that gym time is paying off!”
Another one yelled: “It’s your world, John. We’re just living in it, baby. Drive that [cart] right up on the tee box.”
On the par-3 14th hole, Daly hit his tee shot off the base of a camera tower. He had to drive the cart around the left side of the green and park it among the patrons. While Daly was failing to get up and down, a group of teenagers gathered around his cart.
One of them said, “Do it! Do it! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
His friend gave into peer pressure, jumped into the driver’s seat of Daly’s cart and posed for a photo.
Daly walked off the green and climbed back into the cart. Apparently upset about the bogey he just made, Daly didn’t take his foot off the gas while he raced past fans down the steep hill between the 14th green and 15th tee.
“New York fans are great,” Daly said. “Some of them are going to get on you, but 99.9 percent of them are great. They’re good fans.”
Daly played with Beem and Y.E. Yang, neither of whom plays competitively on the PGA Tour anymore. Daly routinely outdrove both of them, but he averaged only 289.6 yards, which is a far cry from his distance in the early 1990s, when he mesmerized golf fans with his booming drives.
Ultimately, it was Daly’s putting that did him in. He averaged almost two putts — and about one cigarette — per hole.
Even at the twilight of his career, though, Daly is still the champion of the people. PGA officials wouldn’t allow him to carry rain gear or an umbrella in his cart — but he was able to have an extra-large cup from McDonald’s and four cans of Diet Coke to refill it.
“I heard some hysterical things,” Beem said. “I think the funniest thing, and I’ve known John for 20 years now, is he’s cruising down the fairway lighting up a dart and drinking a Diet Coke. That’s awesome. You go, John. You go, baby.”