Get Ready for John Daly II

"He's so freaking talented, it's stupid."
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterAugust 7, 2020

It was late May, and a 16-year-old nicknamed "Little John" was tied for first place after 36 holes at the golf course where his given name became a household one 29 years ago.

Little John knew what the moment meant, but he was comfortable in it. The pressure felt right. Even though he had never played the course before, he was at ease on it. He had a feeling that everyone else there was on his side.

It's not a mystery why. Even those he was competing against at the Dye National Junior Invitational—more than 30 of the nation's best amateur golfers—couldn't help but get swept up in it all.

There he was, John Patrick Daly II, with a chance to win at Crooked Stick, the course that made his dad famous.

Now, before we go any further, let's address the obvious: Yes, Little John's dad is that John Patrick Daly I. The one who once threw his golf club into Lake Michigan during a major championship. The one who won two majors—his first as a rookie and alternate at the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in 1991. The one who regularly drove his golf ball a mile before it became fashionable. The one whose actions off the course trumped his accomplishments on it. That John Patrick Daly I.

Little John, now 17, has spent his whole life hearing the stories. And hearing about the resemblance.

It's the eyes. The hair. The swing. Those soft hands around the green. The name.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

In May, it was the buzz at a golf club in suburban Indianapolis.

For three days, a storybook ending and beginning was in reach. Dad could feel it coming. And with that came the emotions—a mix of memories old and new. Daly enjoyed it all from a comfortable distance, doing his best to stay out of the spotlight and out of his son's way. Not because he wasn't fully behind him and deeply invested in Little John.

But because he wants whatever happens next to be about him.

Nick Duffy isn't sure how to quantify what one of his prized students is capable of. So instead, as the golf coach navigates the nuances of his game, it pours out.

"I mean, he's so freaking talented, it's stupid," Duffy says.

He's talking about Little John. But it could easily have been something said about a young Daly three decades ago.

For those whose memories don't extend that far back, put it this way: Before Bryson DeChambeau, there was Daly. Before golf became an elaborate physics experiment and a never-ending exploration for more distance off the tee and greater swing speed, one man monopolized the space.

His approach to golf was not delicate. Swing harder. Hit farther. Accuracy was important, but not as important as shortening the hole for the next shot.

"He was ahead of his time by decades," Golf.com senior writer Alan Shipnuck says. "But it wasn't calculated into who he was. It was more of a swing-as-hard-as-you-can-and-go-find-it approach. He'd cast into a winning formula before people really knew it existed.

"He wasn't aware that he was starting a revolution. It was just how he played the game."

In 1997, Daly became the first PGA Tour golfer to average more than 300 yards off the tee—a category he led for 11 years. He won five times on the tour, including two majors, the first at Crooked Stick and the second the Open Championship at The Old Course at St. Andrews in 1995.

"It was a combination of power and soft hands," Shipnuck adds. "Only geniuses win at The Old Course, and Daly was off the charts. That is a level of golf that very few players can access. It's for champions. He's on that list."

Duffy sees the same type of champion potential in Little John.

Distance off the tee is one of his great strengths, just like his dad. And he has a short game that coaches and teammates believe is already elite.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

"He really does have a passion for the short game," Daly says. "He loves to putt and chip."

"If he learns to manage his game better and stay patient out there, he can win a lot," adds Duffy, a senior golf coach at MMG Golf Performance in Winter Garden, Florida, who began working with Little John four years ago at IJGA Bishops Gate Golf Academy. "And [he can] do so without really having to try as hard as he does."

The fact that Little John is in this position should come as no surprise. By the time he was two, he was intrigued by golf. By six, he had shown enough talent for Dad to know his son might have a gift like his own. By 10, he was playing in tournaments. From there, he began to appear on occasion in nationally televised father-son tournaments.

Daly and Little John at the PNC Father/Son Challenge in Orlando in 2017.
Daly and Little John at the PNC Father/Son Challenge in Orlando in 2017.Manuela Davies/Getty Images

Because of his dad, Little John also got the opportunity to travel the world along the way, visit prestigious golf courses and meet countless celebrities. He remembers what it was like to experience some of golf's biggest stages and most honored venues up close. He remembers particularly what it felt like during a British Open week.

And he could often be found on the chipping green in the days before Daly played in an event, attached to dad's hip, mimicking his every move, usually with one of his wedges in hand.

"I taught him his grip," Daly says. "I've also taught my kids (Little John and two daughters) to be independent, but I'm always there for them and tell them to ask me anything."

For years, all the way up through sixth grade, Little John traveled with his dad, with tutors and Daly himself serving as his teachers. (Dad focused on math and history.) "It was great traveling," he says. "But I didn't like it at times, because there were no kids my age."

Little John and Daly at the Zurich Classic in 2011.
Little John and Daly at the Zurich Classic in 2011.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

So in 2015, Daly decided it was time for a more structured education and enrolled his son at Montverde Prep School and at Bishops Gate, a junior golf academy outside Orlando.

When he was first presented the prospect of coaching Little John, Duffy was momentarily star-struck. The thought of working with John Daly's son was exciting. But this was also the son of parents, Daly and ex-wife Sherrie, with well-known issues. Before Duffy could begin to consider refining Little John's golf swing, he wanted to know more about who he was.

"I really just wanted to make sure he was a good person," Duffy says. "That's really what I was more worried about. The gifts and the potential? I think that was kind of secondary for a while."

Although Duffy is at a new facility now, he still speaks to Little John regularly. They'll dissect swings through cellphone videos. After so much time together, there's a greater understanding of what Little John needs in terms of advice—which isn't much.

"He's very low-maintenance, in that sense," Duffy says. "He needs one or two things and then just needs to play."

But it wasn't always that way. Over the past four years, Duffy has watched Little John's mindset and game evolve, and arriving at this place of comfort took time and growth.

Physically, as his collegiate career inches closer (as a rising senior, he's drawing interest from colleges across the country and is expected by many to follow in Daly's footsteps and play at Arkansas), he is much stronger and fitter than he was before.

The mental side of the game, though, is where the greatest strides have come. He's developed a love of practice—something his dad never really had.

Jenna Watson/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

"He doesn't like the range," Little John says about his dad. That is not the case with Little John.

Not that Little John does everything the way a normal amateur golfer does these days, either. He won't attempt the same shot three times in a row. He'll try to tackle pins with different shot types. He'll experiment with different clubs. Like his dad, he has a knack and a passion for course creativity.

"He's fun to watch," Duffy says. "He has so much flare out there and has every shot you need to play the game of golf. He knows how to do it."

Where skill and mentality collide is a place that Little John is still trying to refine. Picking spots and knowing when and where to be aggressive with his approach to a course is a learning process—something many young and experienced golfers struggle with.

But the confidence Little John was born with is an asset, not something to hide from. When everything comes together for him, he has a rare swagger and belief that he is capable of executing any shot.

"When he's on the golf course, he looks more comfortable than he does [when] he's giving you an interview," Duffy says. "He's the most uncomfortable person on earth [off the course]. He likes being in that light. It's his place. He likes being out there competing."

Teammates see the same from him.

Little John's name made him a popular addition at Monteverde from the jump, but he wasn't what they expected away from the course. He was shy. Kind. Likable. "Super chill" about his dad's fame, says Julian Perico, who was a First Team All-SEC golfer at Arkansas last season and played with Daly at Montverde. "He's a very low-key guy," Perico adds. "Everyone just loves him."

But then on the course, he becomes something else.

"He wanted to beat all of our asses out there," Perico says. "It didn't matter how much younger he was."

Back to May, to a Daly in contention once more at Crooked Stick.

Little John declined interviews after his second round had finished. He knew what the moment meant and what the questions would be. "I'm camera shy," he says now. "After rounds and stuff, I just don't like interviews."

The nights prior, Little John had rewatched the grainy footage of his dad in 1991, walking up the 18th fairway as the gallery erupted.

The fairytale ending was not to be this time. Little John finished in a tie for a second. But the day itself—competing in the final round on the same course his father once did so famously—was something he won't soon forget.

"There was definitely a little extra pressure," he says. “But it was a cool experience for sure."

Jenna Watson/IndyStar via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Dad won't forget it either.

"It was unreal," Daly says. "I am so proud of him. And he almost won it. He had some added pressure, and he handled it great.

"All pride. It's just awesome."

With time, Little John's game will grow. Second-place finishes will become first-place finishes. His drives will travel even farther. His short game will become even sharper. Title contention will become the norm. And as it does, the spotlight will become brighter. The expectations will surge.

As long as he plays the game he grew up with—the game that is in his blood—the comparisons will continue too. No matter how much father and son try to avoid them.

In time, Little John can outgrow them. And outgrow his nickname too. Already, he's begun to carve out a legacy of his own.


Adam Kramer is a features writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.