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Joe Daley, 51, forged golf’s best story last weekend when he won a Champions Tour event. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Joe Daley, 51, forged golf’s best story last weekend when he won a Champions Tour event. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

LORNE RUBENSTEIN

Rubenstein: Breaks go Daley’s way this time Add to ...

A golfer plays against his or her own “mental gremlins,” to cite a term Greg Norman, who had a few of his own, once used. Norman won two majors and many other tournaments but his talent was such that he ought to have won more majors, probably many more. Still, he’s one of the most successful and famous golfers in the world.

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Then there’s Tiger Woods, who won his third PGA Tour event of 2012 last Sunday when he took the AT&T National in Bethesda, Md. There’s Yani Tseng, the No. 1-ranked player in women’s golf, who will try to win her sixth major this week at the U.S. Women’s Open. She’s 23, and is the youngest player in history to win five majors.

These golfers are “names.” And then there’s Joe Daley.

Joe Daley? Yes. The 51-year-old forged golf’s best story last weekend. But a writer is supposed to show, not tell. Here’s what Daley showed the golf world. And himself.

Daley started the final round of the Senior Players Championship at the Fox Chapel Country Club, near Pittsburgh, tied for the lead with Mark Calcavecchia. He was a shot ahead of Fred Couples and Tom Lehman. The threesome had won major championships, and were multiple winners on the PGA Tour before becoming eligible for the Champions Tour.

But Daley? He was a credit salesman in Pennsylvania, his home state, before he turned pro when he was 32. He’d won twice on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour and had a couple of stints on the PGA Tour. His best finish had been a tie for sixth place at the 1996 B.C. Open in Endicott, N.Y.

More than 11 years had passed since Daley had become famous – if that’s the right word, and it probably isn’t, but somehow it fits – for missing a five-foot putt on the final hole of the fourth round at the 2000 PGA Tour qualifying school. The putt was in, and then it wasn’t. The ball snapped off the top edge of the cup liner and bounced out of the hole. Did that really happen?

Daley was shocked. He whipped his head around and threw his cap on the ground. A cup liner is supposed to be set at least an inch below the surface. But this cup liner had shifted.

Never mind. Two rounds were left in the dreaded qualifying school, a six-round tournament that in many ways represents the apotheosis of confrontation with one’s mental gremlins. Two rounds later, Daley had shot 418 for the six rounds. Thirty-six golfers qualified for the PGA Tour. Daley wasn’t one of them.

He missed by a shot. That one shot. The cup liner.

Now Daley is on the Champions Tour. He had shot 66-64-68 to take the one-shot lead into the final round at Fox Chapel, a classic old course where one green has a scooped-out middle so deep that it appears suitable for a skateboarder rather than a golfer. He was playing in his home state.

Along the way in the final round, Daley flinched on a four-foot par putt. Calcavecchia, with whom he was playing, noticed the yip. But the ball somehow fell. The cup liner was in the right place. Daley went on to shoot 68, and won. He’s set now on the Champions Tour through 2013. He can play wherever and whenever he wants. The $415,000 (U.S.) he won is a bonus.

“I was my competition out there,” Daley said when asked about playing against Calcavecchia, Couples and Lehman in the last round. “I’m my own competition. Have been for years.”

Daley won the competition. He chased away the mental gremlins. He showed his stuff. Last weekend, he was golf’s best story.

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