KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – There are plenty of people rooting for John Daly to continue his latest surprise run at the PGA Championship, including another big-hitter in Tiger Woods.
Daly dusted off his long drives and showed the touch around the greens that won him two majors, including his breakthrough victory in the 1991 PGA, shooting a 4-under 68 on Thursday to finish two strokes behind first-round leader Carl Pettersson.
The 46-year-old Daly has lived off sponsor invites as he shuttles between the PGA and European tours. Recently, though, he has felt his game improve enough that he isn't that surprised by his round at The Ocean Course.
"I've been playing good, just trying to keep it at my own pace, just be myself and play golf," said Daly, coming off a five-place tie last week in the Reno-Tahoe Open.
That's always been good enough for some, like Woods, who was just 13 when he first played with Daly. Tiger was in awe of Big John's power even then, sharing a story of a mid-iron, uphill, par-5 shot that Woods swore hit the center of the green and bounced out of bounds.
"I've never seen anybody hit the ball that hard," said Woods, who has some length to his game, too.
Daly used his length to navigate the 7,676-yard layout — by 2 yards the longest in major championship golf — and a short game that kept him near the top. He briefly gained a share of the lead at 4 under with an eagle on the par-5 11th, then gave back a stroke a hole later, a bobble that in the past might have unnerved Daly for additional mistakes.
This time, Daly held firm with two more birdies on the way in. He saved par from left of the green on the difficult 18th, rolling in a 12-footer to stay two behind Pettersson.
It was only the third time in his past 29 rounds at the PGA — Daly qualifies as a past champion — that he has broken 70. He hasn't made the cut since 2007 or finished better than 32nd since gaining the Wanamaker Trophy 21 years ago.
"It's just a course I feel I've got to take it on," Daly said.
One thing he hasn't lost is his popularity with fans. He had almost as many followers as Woods and the cheers for his good shots were just as loud. "I saw John Daly was up near the top," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said. "That's exciting."
Daly thinks people plug into his struggles — the relationship problems, the gambling, the run-ins with authority — because they've been there in some fashion, too. When Daly has the driver going, it's a magic his fans feel as well.
"Everybody's life is up and down. It's how we battle to get through it," Daly said. "I think people relate to that."
Woods could relate even as a teenager still unsure of his golf game. Woods and Daly were paired in third round of an event at the Texarkansa Country Club in 1989. Teen Tiger, all of 107 pounds then, was 3-under par at the turn and four in front of Daly, who'd driven all night from his home in Blytheville to play. Daly turned up his game down the stretch, finishing with birdies on three of the last four holes to shoot a 70 — two strokes better than Woods.
Woods hasn't forgotten the round or the friendship forged with Daly that day.
"I have always rooted for him," Woods said. "I have always been a John Daly fan and a friend."
The support just doesn't come from Woods. Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, tied with Daly at 68, said plenty of pros at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational crowded around the TV to watch Daly challenge at the Reno-Tahoe Open. He wound up tied for fifth.
"I've never seen more players more excited," Ogilvy said. "Everyone wants to see him do well."
Daly's had some strong results this year. He was 12th at the Greenbrier last month and came into the PGA Championship off the strong showing in Nevada.
"When I get on a run, six, seven, eight weeks in a row, I feel like I have a better chance of playing well," Daly said. "It's starting to pay off a little bit."
Being the PGA Championship helps, too, giving Daly some good memories of a time when nearly every drive striped the middle of the fairway and every putt rattled the bottom of the cup.
Daly takes heart from the fan support. He even got a hug from best-selling singer, songwriter Darius Rucker. "I love watching John play," said the frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish.
Will Daly's good play continue this weekend? He isn't worried about it.
"If I walk out of here knowing I played the best I can, that's all that matters," he said. "And the way I'm hitting it, I just don't want to get too up or too down about it."