TULSA, Okla. — After all these years, John Daly still loves to grip it and rip it.
First at the slot machines.
Then at Southern Hills.
Neither figured to be the smart choice at the PGA Championship. Instead of practicing on a course he had not seen in 13 years, Daly chose to gamble at Cherokee Casino. Then he really rolled the dice by hitting driver at every opportunity on a track that demands precision.
Against all odds, it worked.
Drenched in sweat and drowned by cheers, the two-time major champion walked off the 18th green Thursday with a 3-under 67 that left him two shots behind Graeme Storm, another unlikely star on a day rife with surprises.
Storm, who was washing trays at a cake factory in England five years ago, was the only player who made it around Southern Hills without a bogey on his way to a 65 that left him looking down a leaderboard to find some of the usual suspects.
“The longer you stay ahead of Tiger Woods, the better,” Storm said.
Woods, the defending PGA champion trying to make sure he doesn’t end the year without a major, birdied three of his first six holes before he ran out of improbable par saves and settled for a 71.
Woods’ name on any leaderboard can be intimidating. These days, Daly’s name looks out of place.
Especially this week.
He didn’t bother with a practice round the previous three days because of the oppressive heat, where temperatures climbed past 100 in the opening round and a cold front this week is anything in double digits. While some guys went through a liter of water every two holes, Daly loaded up on caffeine and cigarettes.
Not long after his best round at the PGA Championship in 10 years, it was all a blur.
“I can’t remember, to tell you the truth,” Daly said when asked about his four birdies. “Only had three heat strokes out there.”
No one else could believe it.
“Must be from all of the practice rounds he played here,” Woods said.
Daly had not played Southern Hills since he missed the cut at the ’94 PGA Championship. Best he can recall, only one other time has he showed up at the first round of a major without a practice round. That would be the ’91 PGA Championship, when he was the ninth alternate who drove through the night to Crooked Stick in Indiana.
And then he won.
Only a dozen players managed to break par on a course that provided ample opportunity for birdies, yet meted out its share of punishment with the slightest mistake.
Stephen Ames birdied his last three holes for a 68, putting him with Arron Oberholser and Woody Austin. The group at 69 included British Open champion Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who made seven birdies.
So many others weren’t so fortunate.
U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera was at even par until he hit two balls out-of-bounds, one in the water and took three putts from 30 feet for a 10 on the par-3 sixth hole, sending him to an 81, his worst score in a major championship.
Woods was in great shape at 3 under, saving one par from the trees on No. 16 and another by chipping in on the 17th. But from the middle of the fairway, his approach to No. 18 (his ninth hole) clipped a tree and dropped into the bunker. His next shot rolled down a slope some 50 feet away and he did well to make bogey.
Three more bogeys followed, although the world’s No. 1 player didn’t sound concerned.
“I felt like I hit the ball better than my score indicates, which is good,” Woods said.
Phil Mickelson made his share of amazing birdies to go with a collection of blunders, such as his journey through the rough in trees for a bogey on the par-5 sixth, and dumping a flop shot into the bunker on No. 8.
“You’re going to hit some bad shots and get bogeys here,” he said after shooting a 73. “You’re not going to be able to go all 18 holes and go unscathed.”
Storm was the exception.
He had the only bogey-free round, which required no small measure of skill, along with some luck.
The 29-year-old player from England had little left in the tank when he arrived in Tulsa from the World Golf Championship at Firestone, where he finished 18 over par. This is his eighth week in a row, a stretch that began before he won the French Open for his first European Tour victory. Storm decided to forget about technique and enjoy the day, and it turned out to be a blast.
He started with consecutive birdies, nearly making an ace on the 11th. And when it looked as though he might get in trouble with a tee shot into the trees on the No. 2, he chipped in for birdie and raised his hands, wondering what was happening to him.
“It was one of those rounds when I never really thought about anything,” Storm said.
This was no time to reflect on his past, either, the darkest days coming at the end of the 2002 season when he lost his card in Europe and was broke. He found work at a cream cake factory, washing trays in the back alley in weather so cold the pipes were frozen. It paid about $250 a week, a job he kept for two months.
“You have to bite the bullet and go back,” he said. “I was just being a normal person doing an everyday job, eight hours a day. I didn’t know where my career was going to go. I thought that might be the end, to be honest.”
Daly’s career looks like it might end any minute.
He lost his PGA Tour card last year and has been getting by on sponsor’s exemption when he needs them. But that hasn’t been his problem. Daly has finished only five of his 19 tournaments this year, and he hit a milestone this year by recording his 50th round in the 80s on the PGA Tour.
So how to explain ripping driver on a course that requires careful navigation? Signing for a 67 at a major where he had broken 70 once in the last 10 years?
“I have no idea,” Daly said.
And then there’s the heat, so severe that workers doused greens with a hose and Ames stood in front of a fan to cool his face.
“No wonder he didn’t play any practice rounds,” Ames said of Daly. “He would have died.”
Daly found it a victory simply to finish, huffing and puffing up the hills, especially on the last hole.
“There was odds with all the caddies and players this week who would fall first, me or my caddie,” he said. “So we made it. We made 18 holes. It was one of those rounds I was very aggressive off the tee. I didn’t know what else to do.”
The bigger question is where he goes from here.