AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – The fans were checking out the hats, T-shirts, towels and golf flags covering the folding tables, but what they’d really come to see was still inside the oversized RV parked across the street from Augusta National.

“Where’s John today?” one asked. “Recovering?”

Considering John is John Daly, the question wasn’t unreasonable. Daly was one of the most entertaining golfers in the world, winning two major titles with his booming drives and go-for-broke style. He also was a hard-drinking, hard-living, train-wreck-waiting-to-happen kind of guy, and you never knew which one you were going to get.

“I always talk about the things in my life that have happened because it might help somebody,” Daly said Thursday. “We all make mistakes, hell, everybody knows that. But most people are too embarrassed or too scared to admit them. I’m not, it’s part of life.”

Only a few weeks from the end of his six-month suspension from the PGA Tour and slimmer than he’s been in years after surgery to shrink his stomach, Daly is kicking off what could be called his comeback tour at the Masters. The money he makes from shilling his merchandise – cash only, please – will help him stave off bankruptcy. The 40-plus pounds he’s lost in the last eight weeks will help his prodigious game get back under control.

But it’s the reaction from the fans that seems to matter most. It’s been more than five years since he won a tournament, two since he was a factor with any consistency. He’s fallen so far his No. 783 world ranking trails some guy from that golfing hotbed of Norway.

Yet fans are as gaga over Daly as they were back when he was golf’s favorite sideshow, buying his hats, clothes and books, and lining up just for the chance to get a picture taken with him. Aside from Tiger and a few others, the guys playing across the street don’t get that kind of love.

“I can’t believe how much he’s been embraced this week,” said Anna Cladakis, Daly’s girlfriend. “That, for me and for John, was important. It was the icing on the cake. After you’ve been practicing and losing weight and for everybody to come back and embrace him … that really has helped John.”

That Daly is spectacularly talented was never a question. You don’t go from the last alternate to a major champion, as he did at the 1991 PGA Championship, unless you’ve got considerable game. And you sure don’t win a second major – the British Open, no less – by being lucky.

But his personal life sounded like a bad country and western song. His two trips to alcohol rehab, four marriages, gambling losses and other off-the-course episodes have made him a carnival act to some and a cult figure to others. He doesn’t have any sponsors for the first time in 17 years, and is “pretty close” to declaring bankruptcy. He made millions in endorsements over the years, but said he loaned a lot of people a lot of money.

After a series of incidents last season, including police in North Carolina throwing him in jail to sober up, the PGA Tour gave him a six-month timeout.

“You’re always embarrassed a little bit, but you know, you take it in stride and go on and say, “Hey, everybody makes mistakes,”‘ Daly said. “Most of the stuff that’s happened in the last year or two, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and people judged it the wrong way. I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but when you look at perception, it’s always wrong.

“People judge and perceive instead of getting the facts about my life,” he added. “They want to make up stuff or start stuff because they’re so used to doing it.”

After his weight, always a struggle for the 5-foot-11 Daly, ballooned to 280 pounds, he underwent Lap-Band surgery in February. A silicone band was placed around the upper portion of his stomach, shrinking its size and limiting how much he can eat. He’s lost 42 pounds so far, and has gone from wearing XXXL shirts to extra large.

He’s on a high-protein diet, and what he does eat has to be chewed and chewed and chewed so it will be soft enough to swallow. Alcohol? Daly said he’ll have the occasional sip of a drink or a beer, but that’s it.

“It takes me about an hour to drink one beer, just sipping on it,” he said. “I drink a little bit, but not much.”

Daly is also focusing on his game. He’s working with Rick Smith, Phil Mickelson’s former coach, and plans to head to Europe later this month to play in Spain, Italy and Ireland, as well as at the PGA Championship in England. Daly said his long game is really good, but his short game is taking a little longer.

As for putting, let’s just say there’s a noticeable difference when there’s no longer a belly to get in the way.

“I’m not having to lean back because my gut’s hanging over,” Daly said. “Me and Rick have been trying to shorten my stroke. The shorter putts are all right, but the long putts, my speed’s way off. It’s been tough. But I’ve told Rick, whatever you want me to do, I’m going to do.

“What I love about him is he said, “We’re not building something just to get you by, like you’ve always done, and hopefully you win. We’re going to get you where you can stay more consistent.”‘

Daly hopes to be back on the PGA Tour in time for the Colonial, which is May 28-31. While Tiger has a firm grip on the tour’s spotlight, there’s also a pack of youngsters who can bomb it the way Daly did – without the extracurriculars.

Still, Daly hopes there’s still a place in the game for him.

“I think this time it’s for me,” said Daly, who turns 43 later this month. “I don’t have to really prove a lot anymore. I’ve just got to prove some stuff to myself.”

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