CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Joe Daley learned at rookie orientation that as a PGA Tour member, he had access to the vast TPC network. He was at tour headquarters that week and wasted no time taking advantage of this perk, sneaking out to play the TPC Sawgrass and holing out from the 10th fairway for eagle.
That was December 1995.
Ben Crenshaw was the Masters champion. Tiger Woods was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion in his second year at Stanford.
Daley could not have imagined it would take him more than 17 years to get back to Sawgrass, and certainly not under these circumstances. He finally returns next week, at 52 the oldest player to make his debut in The Players Championship.
"I've played a lot of courses between then and now," Daley said.
The most significant course was Fox Chapel in Pittsburgh, where last July he won the Seniors Players Championship by two shots over Tom Lehman to earn a spot in The Players Championship, the tournament with the strongest field and richest purse.
That he never played Sawgrass except for that casual round is not surprising. Daley only had two full years on the PGA Tour. He spent 10 full years in the minors, long enough to play under three umbrella sponsors — Nike Tour, Buy.com Tour and Nationwide Tour. When he turned 50, he had to Monday qualify for Champions Tour events. He finally got his big break with a 66-64 weekend in the Senior PGA Championship to tie for fourth, which make him eligible for the Senior Players.
And here he is.
"It's a lot of years of hard work, man," he said. "It's pretty cool."
To put some of that into perspective, the winner of The Players Championship gets $1.71 million. That's nearly as much as Daley's earnings ($1.96 million) in two decades playing the PGA Tour, the Champions Tour and what is now called the Web.com Tour.
Other than his two wins in the minor leagues and his one big win on the Champions Tour, the highlights have been limited.
Daley, who didn't start chasing his dream until he was 32, remembers the first time he played a PGA Tour event. He was a Monday qualifier for the old Anheuser-Busch Classic at Kingsmill, made the cut and wound up getting paired with Curtis Strange in the third round.
"I had to remember to breathe on the first tee," he said.
He was playing in the final round at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1996 when a 20-year-old making his pro debut — Woods — had a hole-in-one. And, in 2000, he became the image of all that can go wrong at Q-school, which even now might be what Daley is remembered for the most. He rapped in a 4-foot par putt that dropped into the bottom of the cup at such an angle that it popped back out. Daley was so stunned that he flung his cap to the ground. He wound up missing his card by one shot.
"I've had people overseas says, 'I know you.' And that happened 12 years ago," Daley said with a laugh.
There are other highlights only Daley would appreciate.
Like the time he joined a group that included Woody Austin and Doug Dunakey for a tour into South America, where the prize money was paid in cash in the back room of a pro shop. He remembers his first U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2000, where he followed an 83 with a 69 and still missed the cut. Looking for a place to play a few years ago when he turned 50, Daley played a developmental tour in Carolina and tied for third while walking and carrying his own bag.
"We still love the journey," he said. "And it's been a cool journey."
This much can be said of Daley: He devotes all his energy into whatever he is doing, and it took him awhile to realize that all he wanted was to play golf for a living. He was a walk on for the golf team at Old Dominion and earned his degree in finance. Having spent so much time around country clubs as a kid — first as a caddie, then in the kitchen, later as a waiter — he decided to put his college studies to use.
Daley's specialty was credit management, a career that was going along fine except that he didn't have much time to play amateur events. In an era of hostile takeovers, his company was bought and then streamlined. Daley hated the idea of laying off people, so he quit and worked for a small company as a credit manager.
"I still wanted to play golf for a living," he said. "I figured out I needed to be in better shape. So I saved up some money and quit my job in '92, got on a flight and flew to Vancouver and qualified for the Canadian Tour. I went broke and went back to Florida."
His wife, Carol, was a teacher. Daley took a job as a banquet waiter at night, allowing him to play, practice and go to the gym in the day.
He tried (and failed) Q-school. He went to South America and South Africa, wherever he could find a place to play. His two years on the PGA Tour (1996 and 1998) brought him career earnings of $155,532 — about what Marcel Siem earned for his tie for 10th in the Texas Open — so he toiled in the minor leagues. If he ever felt like giving up, Daley leaned on a friend in Virginia Beach, Va., an accountant who left a standing offer of a job along with a subtle hint.
"He said, 'If you ever get tired of that, I'll put you to work. But there are millions of people who would love to do what you're doing,'" Daley said. "After every year, I asked my wife, 'Are you cool with this, honey?' And she always said yes."
Daley made just over $1 million in all his years in the minor leagues, not much considering all the hotel rooms and the miles he put on four used cars.
He was driven by pure passion. He learned the value of working hard, eating right and getting plenty of rest. He studied other players and was honest about his own shortcomings as a player. For 20 years, he tried to figure out how to get better after every round and every tournament.
After winning the Senior Players, he said in his press conference, "I'm my own competition. Have been for years."
Such is the nature of golf, and why Daley loves this game so much. One of the greatest appeals of golf is the process of getting better. It's what keeps him going even at 52. He knows that a positive attitude and hard work can go a long way, even if he had to wait a long time for it to pay off.