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John Daly in contention at PGA with a 68

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland hits off the

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland hits off the 12th tee during Round One of the 94th PGA Championship at the Ocean Course. (Aug. 9, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- John Daly has been off for years, by just about any measure. He is or has been off the PGA Tour, off golf's radar, off Butch Harmon's list of students, off kilter. No argument there. Still, with his words and his surprising game, he said he is not that far off.

"I don't think any of us are, who are fighting to get our [tour] cards or fighting to win or whatever. We're never, ever that far," he said after he shot 4-under-par 68 Thursday in the first round of the PGA Championship, tied for sixth and only two behind leader Carl Petterson's 66.

"I just believe if I keep telling [that to] myself, I'll get where I want to be, instead of being negative about it," he said, pointing to the fact that he didn't give up on a tough downhill putt on No. 18. He made it for par. "It keeps the momentum going. That's the kind of changes that you like to see, to keep things going."

The roars that surrounded his charge, especially his eagle on the par-5 11th hole, showed that he never has been off people's list of favorite golfers.

"He's always been great to me. I have always rooted for him. I have always been a John Daly fan and a friend," said Tiger Woods, who put himself in good position with a 3-under-par 69 in the morning, when the Ocean Course was yielding good scores, such as Petterson's and Daly's, Rory McIlroy's 67 and others.

"Things have changed," Woods said right after his round. "The wind has kicked up, and it has actually changed directions, too. If it had stayed pretty benign, I'm sure you would have had to have probably shot 5 under par to be in the top 10."

"Benign" is not a word that comes to mind in describing Daly's life since he stunningly won the 1991 PGA at Crooked Stick in Indiana. He entered as the ninth alternate and left as a folk hero. He instantly became known for his extraordinarily long drives and his "Grip it and rip it" philosophy, on the course and off.

Woods was 13 when he played with Daly in Texarkana, Ark. "He hit a 4- or 5-iron -- the second hole is a par 5, up the hill and down the grain -- and he hit the shot," Woods said, "and he knocked the damn ball out of round."

In other words, Daly changed the shape of the ball. "I've never seen anybody hit the ball that hard," Woods said.

The problem for Daly, 46, is that reality often hit him harder. He has had reported problems with alcohol, gambling, weight, domestic violence and marriage (four divorces). To play in the U.S. these days, he must depend on winner's exemptions or sponsors' invitations. Last year, he ranked only 187th on the PGA Tour money list, 199th on the European list.

Yet he never gives up. He has been playing better lately (a tie for fifth last week at the Reno-Tahoe Open) and he insists he can make a living on tour. A big finish by him this week would be off the charts, judging from fans' reactions.

"They were getting good and loud on the back nine today. I love it," Daly said.

So how does he explain this enduring magnetism? "It's just like my golf game. It is up and down," he said. "But so is my life. Everybody's life is up and down. I think people relate to that."

Defending champion Keegan Bradley shot a solid 4-under 68. No matter what happens this weekend, his caddie Steve Hale will take no time off. He will carry next week at the U.S. Amateur, near his Colorado home, for Dylan Crowley of Glen Cove. Crowley attends St. John's, as Bradley did.

"The guy is just a golf fanatic," Bradley said of his caddie. "I can't imagine doing what he's doing, but it's pretty cool."

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