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John Daly on the comeback trail once again

The man with more monikers than PGA Tour titles is still working on his epitaph.

After 37 years of hard living, some might consider that an achievement in itself. But it seems John Daly is not finished yet. As he flirts with one of the more touching of his comebacks, the double major winner has golf fans in the palm of his working man's hand.

Just last year, the idea of Daly the golfer looked dead and buried. Ranked outside the world's top 200, the American had 16 missed cuts, withdrawals or disqualifications from 22 Tour events in 2003.

His personal life was no more orderly. He learnt that his fourth wife, Sherrie, had been indicted on federal charges of laundering drug money just five days after the July birth of their son, John Daly II. The two filed to divorce each other in October.

In August, his caddy left him, and his long-time friend and personal assistant Donnie Crabtree resigned shortly afterwards. Daly was then carried away from a hole at the 84 Lumber Classic after hyperventilating.

"It's hard watching somebody you love self-destruct," Crabtree said.

From the moment he drove all night to enter and win the 1991 U.S. PGA Championship as ninth alternate, country-boy Daly has accumulated countless tales of woe and indiscipline.

He has put many of his struggles with alcohol, anti-depressants, gambling, binge eating, divorces and Tour officials down in song, on a country and western CD.

Cynics will say he has raised hopes before. But for many neutral observers, the moment Daly won his first PGA title in nine years in a playoff at the Buick Invitational last month -- cheered on by Sherrie after their reconciliation -- was significant.

A tearful Daly thought so. "It's the sweetest victory," he said.

In 1995, just after winning the British Open, Daly expressed amazement at winning while sober. It was suggested that such a moment could preface happier times, but his sobriety did not last.

He has previously checked into rehabilitation centres without success and there is no guarantee he is now back for good.

But rarely has one of his upswings been so positive. When he followed the Buick win with a fourth place at the Nissan Open, it was the first time in 12 years he had followed a PGA Tour victory with a top-10 finish.

His ranking has improved to 64 and, as he is in the money list top 10 this season, he is close to earning a start at the U.S. Masters in April.

Moreover, a good season could earn him a first ever place in the U.S. Ryder Cup team, for their clash against Europe in September.

The stars are beginning to align better than the night in 2001 when he won nearly $1 million on the fruit machines of Las Vegas.

Critically, though, the current recovery has a different feel to it, because it has come more through judgment than luck.

His latest addiction is to work on the range. "I've seen determination," said Chipper Cecil, Daly's tutor. "Not to beat everybody, just to prove what he's always known, that he can play this game as well as anyone."

Standing by Sherrie as she faces trial, Daly underlines his love for his four children. His outlook is more humble than ever.

"My life is simple now," he says, and you can almost picture this hybrid blue collar-professional sportsman on the steps of his mobile home he drives to tournaments, a cola in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

"I just want to do good. My goal is not to make the same stupid mistakes and not trust some of the people I've trusted.

"You live and learn. It's just taken me longer than most."

Daly the flawed hero will always be cherished by his loyal fans but to others he can be a liability.

Ask the owners of the South African hotel room he trashed in 1991, or the stewardess of the plane off which Daly was thrown after a confrontation in 1992. Or his ex-wives, or former Tour commissioner Deane Beman after he suspended Daly in 1993. Or the 62-year-old man with whom he scuffled in 1994 after hitting into another group, or the organisers of the Heineken Classic after his two-hour round in 1997.

It is unlikely the future will be straightforward for Daly. In a remarkable moment of pathos, he says matter-of-factly that "granted, I'll have to divorce her" if Sherrie is found guilty and imprisoned for up to 20 years after her trial.

His friend Fuzzy Zoeller once laid odds of 50-1 that Daly would not see 50 but the "Wild Thing" refuses to quit. That epitaph is not set in stone yet.

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