Few sports networks do as little to justify their bloated cost as ESPN does, but their skyrocketing costs for sports rights fees which may well end up being their demise if the rates of cord-cutting continue despite what they say publicly. However, their 30-for-30 series of documentaries (going on 7 years since its inception) represent some of the best programming they’ve done (they’ve covered topics in a range of subjects such as the USFL, Steve Bartman, Magic Johnson, Len Bias, OJ Simpson (a 5-part series), the Hillsborough Disaster (largely unknown to American audiences), and the Wayne Gretzky trade). If you haven’t watched the 5-part OJ documentary I cannot recommend it enough (if you do watch know that they have previously unseen crime scene photos that are VERY graphic).
So when they announced they were producing a 30-for-30 documentary about John Daly (you can watch the trailer here), I hoped it would be as good as some of their recent offerings as it was the first full-length episode in the series to focus on golf. Hit It Hard was certainly a well-produced and well-sourced documentary (the interviews with Jim Nantz and David Feherty are interesting but left me wanting more), but it was far too limited in its focus and left me wanting more. What has made their previous offerings work is the ability to pull in both core fans of a subject and casual viewers. It focused on his playing career from 1991-1995 (during which he won 2 majors), and then a fast forward to the 2015 Open Championship. A casual fan will likely be sated, but there’s so much more to the man.
One huge facet that the directors missed was that the person who introduced John Daly to smoking was his college coach, Steve Loy (who encouraged it as a means of losing weight). Fascinating and horrifying, but the directors decided to not acknowledge that Loy has been Phil Mickelson’s agent for well over 20 years. Nothing against anybody but it is notable. This could have easily been noted towards the end and is certainly interesting.
The documentary starts with Daly today, having gained back the weight he had lost through gastric bypass surgery (something that was not addressed), still smoking. It then bolts back to the 1991 USPGA Championship and recounts Daly getting in as the 9th alternate and then winning the tournament; they have audio from the CBS/TNT coverage which helped accentuate the footage.
It then details his first fall from grace; with the money that came in after his win, we hear about the 1992 arrest for drinking, withdrawals from tournaments, and his admission that he never drank during a tournament round except for one round during the then-LA Open (tournament at Riviera). We learn that Daly’s father was abusive and drank heavily, which could not have come as a surprise.
The documentary then advances to the 1995 (British) Open Championship at St. Andrews, where Daly won in a playoff over Constantine Rocca. With access to the ABC coverage, it’s a reminder that Brent Musburger used to host ABC’s golf coverage. Golf fans will remember, but casual fans will see Daly win in dramatic fashion.
The normalcy in Daly’s life is rather shocking; trips to Wal-Mart to buy groceries with his current partner, grilling steaks for a cookout, and watching his son play junior golf. All things that any person will easily relate to doing in their lives. And of course, the constant smoking. Simply from a human perspective I hope Daly doesn’t suffer long-term from his smoking, but like many other things, the odds are stacked against him.
For some reason, we then skip 20 years forward to the 2015 Open Championship at St. Andrews, where (for me) the most touching moment occurs. At part of a past-Champions celebration you see Daly and Arnold Palmer chatting; in this brief moment you can sense the respect that Daly has for the great man, and unfortunately, you can see that Arnie doesn’t quite look himself (I always imagine Arnie with that gleam in his eye ready to take on the course and find that old magic one final time).
To miss the years from 1996-2014 leaves a lot untold. While there were plenty of bad (his propensity to withdraw mid-tournament when he was on a sponsor’s invite was particularly galling), I remember his win at Torrey Pines in 2004 for his short game (for big man who could hit the ball a ton, his touch around the greens was always amazing). They may have been dark years for him, but to neglect to show that his popularity never waned despite him being up against the supernova that was early Tiger Woods misses an important part of his life.
This underscores the beauty and the tragedy of Daly; he remains a beloved figure (now playing on the Champions Tour) by many fans, but unfortunately his career will remain a sad case of “what if” given how things have played out. Nonetheless, if you’re a golf fan or simply interested in a classic tragic yet beloved figure, Hit It Hard is well worth watching.