Ever since ESPN released their trailer for Hit It Hard, the “30 For 30” documentary on John Daly, I’ve been excited to see what direction they’d take the film. I was born in 1990, and thus missed most of Daly’s career, so I learned about him the same way I learned about figures like Davy Crockett or John Henry. Because of this, I was really hoping they’d go down a similar path with what the directors of “You Don’t Know Bo,” did and play up the mythical, larger than life side to Long John, rather than beat the dead horse plot of an athlete with limitless talent squandering it all for the temporary satiation of his vices.
I wasn’t disappointed. Directors Gabe Spitzer and David Terry Fine gave us a documentary that was John himself. Honest, reminiscent about what was, wistful about what he hopes was not but enthusiastic about what will be, Hit It Hard revealed a man who gave all of himself to the game and its fans, his highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses, and who because of his contributions, “Golf is a great deal better for having had him in it.”
The film briefly discusses John’s introduction to the game of golf, using a set much too long for him and learning shotmaking from Jack Nicklaus instruction articles in Golf Digest, an exposure to the sport not unlike any of the rest of us, totally removed from the stereotypical grooming and regimental training golfers like Tiger and Crenshaw grew up on. He didn’t have swing coaches and practice facilities instilling competition in him, or helicopter parents steering him back to athletic glory like your Craig James or your Joe McCoy.
He had baseball fields to practice wedge shots on and course lakes to wade into and fish shag balls out of, selling the nicer ones to nearby golfers in the hopes he might earn greens fee money. A childhood that rang true to so many of us that fell in love with the game not because we liked trophies and tournaments, but because we liked swinging clubs. He describes how he earned his spot on the University of Arkansas golf team by losing 67 pounds in two months on a diet of “Jack Daniels and popcorn,” and it’s at this point I realize I’ll never love golf as much as John Daly because there is no way in hell I could survive on liquor and popcorn just to make a golf team. It’s also at this point that the film first acknowledges the notorious rumors of Daly’s drinking ability, something I’m grateful for because I haven’t waited a month to not spend the next hour listening to how many Miller Lites John could toss back in his twenties.
When the film leads into the ’91 PGA Championship, we again get another parallel to John Daly and the rest of us. Here was a man who didn’t make concrete plans to compete in a major tournament, who entered on a whim as the ninth alternate, much the same way we might all throw our name into the local city championship or club match play, never imagining victory to be any more realistic than Santa Claus. But, for Daly, victory was realistic, through no greater preparation or effort on his own than what he had always put in. Just like we all sometimes find ourselves incapable of getting in our own way, unable to find that usual water spot on the back 9 or bring out the chili dips from 100 and in like we always do, John just did what he always did – “Swing Hard, grip it and rip it.” – and after four days was a 25-year-old major champion, again astonishing me because I’m about to be 26 and could never make the cut for a major, let alone win.
The next segment expands on Daly’s struggles with addiction, reminding us all of the damaging potential when so much is thrust on someone who “was never taught success, taught how to be successful.” As someone who spent their first year of college in a drunken haze because I had an academic full ride and didn’t have to pay for a thing, I can relate. Not having to work or worry about student loans was enough of a thrust of success that I flunked out after one year. I can’t imagine what the hell would have happened to me if I had woken up one morning and had millions thrown in my face.
Rather than spend this time lecturing Daly on what might have been, cautioning us on why we should all run from our own humanity, directors Spitzer and Fine interview Daly’s colleagues, his confidants, and industry media figures that paint a picture of a world that didn’t chew John up and spit him out, but rather kept hoping he’d come back, grateful for everything he provided. The film’s heavy use of period competition footage and interviews instead of present reminiscences does well to remind us all that John Daly is not Mickey Mantle. It keeps him young, reminds us how much more potential and life is left in this man.
By the time we reach the British Open at St. Andrews in ’95, we’ve seen a man who it seems could be any of us. A man who got where he was because of his love of the game, who exists in so many paradoxes in golf just like we all do, choosing the sport because it’s solitary, yet having to have every element of his life scrutinized under a magnifying glass in front of millions because of his ability to succeed in this solitary sport.
John’s taken us back to the struggles of the house he grew up in, detailing the substance abuse he suffered under at the hands of his father all while displaying a full devotion to his own children. He’s admitted that when he threw a club or walked off a tournament it was, “because of something off the course,” something I can relate to because I can’t remember the last time I stepped up to the first tee without some distraction in my life clawing at my game, weighing me down far worse than the bag of clubs on my shoulders.
All the myths and legends of John Daly aren’t told like one would speak of an immortal, like watching Hogan bring a course to its knees. Rather, they’re told like we’d speak of the local club hero, or of one of our regular foursome buddies who suddenly shot in the red; unsure of where it came from or how long it will be there, but fully supportive and totally hopeful that we’ll be there for every moment of it.
John Daly arrives at St. Andrews as one of us, someone who it seems got there on divine favor, as evidenced when Daly describes mocking Tiger as Tiger passed him on his way to the gym, and Tiger’s only reply was, “If I had your natural talent, I’d never have to go to the gym.” By the time Daly’s holding The Claret Jug following his playoff win, I’m looking like I just walked out of a Nicholas Sparks movie. Feherty’s perpetual praising throughout the film provides a sentimental evocation of emotion, and when they showed Daly and Palmer’s exchange on the practice green at St. Andrews in the 2015 Champions Round, I lost it. That golf’s steward, its greatest ambassador, and most devoted son would so honestly and welcomingly invite John Daly, a man as human as any of the rest of us, to a conversation and greet him as an equal was hands down the best part of the film. That brief moment between The King and Daly is what all us devoted fans hope for an opportunity to experience. To stand with the game’s greatest and be accepted, to have our potential acknowledged by more than just our own insistence on our way to the course each round is what keeps us coming back despite the bogeys and the club tosses.
I’ve always considered myself a pseudo-John Daly fan. I say pseudo because by the time I was capable of cheering he was playing so infrequently that to cheer for him meant more to cheer for his soul than his swing. Directors Gabe Spitzer and David Terry Fine’s “30 For 30” documentary, Hit It Hard, capture this perfectly, chronicling the professional career of a devoted fan of the game who sought nothing more from it than pleasure, gave nothing less than all of himself to it, and reflected back so many of the traits that exist within all of us that play the sport. .
Pay tribute to the legend of John Daly by purchasing the John Daly “Hit It Hard” Pocket Tees on Rowdy Gentleman.
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