One of the nine young men bellied up to the horseshoe-shaped bar at Sloppy Joe’s and yelled, “Tequila!” His friends bellowed agreement as the bartender lined up nine salt-rimmed glasses and filled them.
The scene was repeated several times, the young men baiting each other into drinking more and more, their loud, good-natured banter carrying with it an ominous undercurrent hinting that things could easily turn ugly.
A year ago, John Daly was part of a similar scene at Sloppy Joe’s, the place where the long day’s journey into his last drunken night began after the first round of the Players Championship.
Daly returned to TPC at Sawgrass this year a sober man who never wants to forget the horror of the night of March 27, a mere 12 months ago.
“It’s definitely a miracle what I’ve done,” Daly said Tuesday. “There’s always been an angel on my shoulder looking after me.”
Even when Daly was sober for 4-1/2 years before his last fall, he was not able to talk about his alcoholism. Now he attends meetings at least three days a week and can speak freely about “beating demons.”
“Last year I was a walking drunk,” Daly said. “This year I have somewhat of a grip on my life.”
The new Daly even was able to find humor in the 18 he scored on No. 6 Sunday in the Bay Hill Invitational.
“I tried my hardest,” Daly said with a laugh that was shockingly surprising because it came from someone normally uptight in interviews.
“I just couldn’t get it over the water,” he said about the six consecutive 3-woods that failed to make the 270-yard carry.
“It’s the first time I’ve actually lost my patience” during his new sobriety, Daly said.
But he followed the 18 with a birdie on the next hole.
“So it looks more like a 10 and a 10 instead of an 18 and a 2,” he said, once again shaking with laughter.
“When I finally got on the green, I had a 30-footer for a 17 and Tom Watson said, ‘Knock it in,’ like it meant something,” Daly said. “He was serious, too. We both just started to laugh.”
Laughter is not entirely new for Daly. It’s just that it’s new for him when he is sober.
The night that turned Daly’s life around began with lots of laughs in the friendliest of environments.
Sloppy Joe’s is a cozy bar of red brick and blond wood huddled behind the purple neon lights that announce its presence on a humble corner along First Street, just a block from the Atlantic Ocean.
A balcony lines the two-story building inside and out. A mounted sailfish hangs from the inside balcony and photographs of Ernest Hemingway, the poster boy for the hard-drinking man’s man, are everywhere.
Just inside the front door is a Sloppy Joe’s shirt autographed by Daly.
“It was very crowded,” said Jeff Taylor, a bartender at Sloppy Joe’s on that night when Daly had his last drink.
“He was very nice, signing autographs and buying drinks for people,” Taylor said Monday night. “He drank a lot, but he was not a problem.”
The real problem came when Daly left Sloppy Joe’s and returned to his hotel room. His wife, Paulette, told him she had taken as much as she could stand of his drinking and was leaving him.
Daly trashed the room, causing $1,000 in damage, and was eventually taken to the hospital in an ambulance, fearing for his life.
Two days later, he was on his way to the Betty Ford center and his second stint of alcohol rehabilitation.
“If I had continued the way I was going last year, I don’t think I would be here,” Daly said.
That night, he was the life of the party.
He was also a perfect drunk.
Tuesday, he slowly turned in his hand one of the nearly 100 coins sent to him by other recovering alcoholics.
“The scariest part is it’s a day-to-day thing,” Daly said, looking at the coin. “If I want to buy my death, I can just go to a liquor store and buy it.”
And because of that, Daly pays the price every day.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HAPPY ANNIVERSARY On Saturday, Daly will receive a coin from Alcoholics Anonymous marking a year of sobriety.