KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. -- John Daly is 46 now, with a face that is growing leathery and a sluggish gait slowed all the more by the slightest limp.
His shoulders sag, he has had lap-band surgery, and he seems mildly embarrassed -- and like something from another era -- when he steps aside, turning his back to light a cigarette.
But the eyes still twinkle and Thursday his pants were incandescent splotches of orange and black. His golf shirt screamed to the everyman populace with a NASCAR sensibility. There was a logo for Blue Collar Golf on the right breast, another for Loud Mouth apparel on the opposite breast, the insignia for a Chevrolet dealer on one sleeve and the address of his personal website on the other sleeve. There were other badges and emblems, not all of them legible, but clearly no one was being turned away.
As the click-on box at the top of his website says: Own a piece of John Daly.
During the first round of the 2012 PGA Championship on Thursday, fans bought in by the thousands as boisterous galleries could not get enough of a middle-aged John Daly playing like the old John Daly. They hooted, chanted his name and cheered as Daly stole the event's opening act, finishing with a 4-under 68, just two shots off the lead held by Carl Pettersson.
On a day with hot, humid and benign conditions, four golfers, including Rory McIlory, were one stroke ahead of Daly, who was tied with seven other golfers. Tiger Woods headlined
"It sure was getting good and loud out there," Daly said, describing the raucous scene around him that might have been at home at Darlington Raceway 160 miles away. "I love when it gets like that. Some guys out here don't like crowds of people yelling and screaming, but not me. I say, 'Let's have some fun.' "
Fun is, of course, what made Daly famous, and infamous. He won the 1991 PGA Championship as an alternate, captured a British Open title four years later and then dropped hundreds of spots in the world golf rankings in a blur of suits, suspensions and sobriety issues.
"But that's what draws people to me and my golf game," he said. "It is up and down. So is my life. Everybody's life is up and down. It's how we battle to get through it, and people relate to that."
Daly was one of dozens of players Thursday taking advantage of the benevolent scoring conditions at the usually daunting Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. With temperatures in the 90s, greens softened by rain earlier in the week and only a light breeze, more than 40 golfers were under par in the first round.
Chief among them was the 34-year-old Pettersson, who missed just two fairways and hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation. Born in Sweden, Pettersson now lives in North Carolina, which he said helped him adapt to the muggy setting.
"I'm as used to it as you can be," he said. "And it is making the course play easier. There really wasn't much wind on the front nine. ... The wind started blowing a little bit on the back nine, and I carried on solid play."
The rotund Pettersson is a popular player on the PGA Tour, known for losing weight four years ago and, when he played worse, putting the weight back on as his game improved.
Meanwhile, the youthfully thin McIlroy seemed to breeze around the course, effortlessly nipping at Pettersson's lead.
"We all figure this is the best weather day of the tournament and you had to take advantage," McIlroy said. "We know there's a bit of wind and rain coming in."
Although, as they were at the British Open last month, the seacoast weather forecasts have been unreliable this week.
The defending PGA champion, Keegan Bradley, a winner last week at the Bridgestone Invitational, played with confidence, needing just 28 putts despite using a new putter since the head to his old putter fell off as he was playing a practice round Tuesday.
Playing with Bradley was Woods, who was erratic off the tee although he scrambled effectively, a measure that his short game has been completely rehabilitated -- something that may be pivotal in the later rounds this week on a course where the greens are hard to hold.
It was also the first day that the players got to acclimate to the local rule for the tournament that declared all the sand on the Ocean Course waste areas instead of bunkers. That meant the golfers could ground their clubs and take practice swings in what were ostensibly greenside bunkers.
"It was weird," Woods said. "I put my club down, and it left a mark in the sand. I stopped doing that. It was too weird."
Woods, though, was not put off by the sight of Daly's name on the leader board.
"I've always rooted for John Daly. I'm a John Daly fan," said Woods, recalling a day when he was 13 years old and first played with Daly.
Asked what he remembered about that first round, Woods told a story about Daly hitting a 1980s vintage balata golf ball with a 5-iron.
"The ball landed on the green, but he had to take it out of play," Woods said. "It was warped. Granted it was a soft balata ball, but I had never seen anybody hit a ball that hard -- just knocked it out of shape."
"That's why people love him," he said.