After Years Away, Daley Rediscovers Competitive Spirit October 7, 2015 | Vero Beach, Fla. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Jess Daley is three wins away from attaining his ultimate goal of playing in the Masters. (USGA/Chris Keane)

U.S. Mid-Amateur Home

Jess Daley paused for a moment when someone asked him how long he had played professional golf.

“I played on the … well, I didn’t really play,” said the former All-America player at Northwestern University. “I had status on the Web.com Tour until 2010, but I had problems with my back from 2004 on. I kind of knew I was done.”

Daley attempted to change his swing to relieve the stress on his back. “But it didn’t work,” said Daley. “I played horrible. All I did was put myself in an enormous amount of debt by the end of the year.”

It’s fairly easy to understand why Daley took a hiatus from the game. And yet, there was some unfinished business: Daley had never competed in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National, and the U.S. Amateur and this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur provide a likely invitation to the winner of the respective championships. He applied to the USGA for reinstatement as an amateur.

“I was excited when I got my status back [earlier this year] – I had been anticipating it for the longest time,” said Daley, 37, of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “For me to beat the kids in college right now, there’s no chance. The short games are a little better for the guys in the U.S. Amateur than they are here. But this is a fair test, where you’ve got guys who actually work for a living – at least I think they work for a living.”

Daley, who is now a surgical sales representative, laughed. He had just earned his third match-play victory of this Mid-Amateur at John’s Island Club’s West Course, a 3-and-2 win over David Noll Jr., of Dalton, Ga., which put him halfway to his goal: the Robert T. Jones Memorial Trophy and a likely trip to Augusta, Ga., next spring. Daley, the No. 13 seed, takes on Brad Wilder, of Fort Wright, Ky., the No. 53 seed who defeated 2013 champion Mike McCoy by an identical 3-and-2 score on Tuesday, at 7:45 a.m. on Wednesday in the quarterfinal round.

“The back’s not feeling real good right now,” said Daley, who grew up in Kirkland, Wash., where he was a state high school and amateur champion. “This is definitely testing it; but it’s only one week, right? Out there [on Tour], it’s not one week, it’s every single week, six or seven days. Those guys put in crazy amounts of time.”

Even as his back ached, Daley reveled in his first USGA championship since the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. He also competed in the 1998 and 1999 U.S. Amateurs.

“It’s like an endurance test out here – it’s crazy,” said Daley. “I can’t remember the last time I played 36 holes, let alone walked more than one round, in years.”

Daley, who eliminated Erik Heggelund, of Seattle, 2 up, in Tuesday morning’s Round of 32 by winning holes 16 and 18, admitted, “I forgot how stressful it was. But it’s fun; I’m here to compete. I haven’t played any tournaments in almost five years.”

Daley seized control of his afternoon match by winning holes 11 and 12 with birdies, the former with a putt from outside his opponent. After struggling on holes 14 and 15, he closed out the match with a conceded par on No. 16.

Daley’s presence at John’s Island this week stems from him recently “getting the itch” to return to the game. He secured a summer membership at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, where he honed his rusty game by playing in matches.

“I play with a lot of good players there, guys with handicaps of anywhere from 1 to 5,” said Daley, who competed on the PGA Tour for one season. “I play at either a plus-4 or a plus-2, if they’re feeling generous. We always have great matches that come down to the 17th or 18th hole.”

If Daley needed more incentive, it was in providing his two sons, 11 and 9, with an introduction to the game. “They’re not like I was at that age, but they’re slowly getting into it,” he said.

Daley officially ended his five-year hiatus from competitive golf when he teed it up in a U.S. Open local qualifier in May.

“I didn’t play well, because I had injured my forearm the day before,” he recalled with a laugh. “I had been doing yardwork for my wife [Natalia] on Mother’s Day.”

His second qualifying foray was a lot more successful. Daley topped the field by four strokes at the Dye Preserve in Jupiter, Fla., on Sept. 10 to earn a spot in his first USGA championship in more than 14 years. The long interlude has only increased his appreciation for what he used to try to do for a living.

“It’s a tough game, even for the guys who are the best,” Daley said. “Those guys [on Tour] are so good right now, and I’m not that good anymore.”

He’s good enough to be within three victories of his avowed goal.

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.