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Go behind the camera with John Daly documentary director Gabe Spitzer

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Like many sports fans in the 90s, Gabe Spitzer was drawn to John Daly because he looked and behaved differently than other pro golfers. Here was a country boy from Arkansas, who wore a mullet hairstyle and a thin mustache, smoked cigarettes, blasted tee shots ridiculous distances down the fairways and into the trees. Fans loved him because he possessed unprecedented power and the talent to win major championships, but also because they related to his struggles away from the course, which frequently made the headlines.

MORE: John Daly tells story of drinking during PGA Tour round

Spitzer and David Terry Fine co-directed the ESPN Films 30-for-30 documentary “Hit it Hard.” It examines the rise-and-fall of Daly in the early 90s juxtaposed against his life today.

The film premieres at 8 p.m. on Nov. 1 on ESPN.

Spitzer, who previously worked at HBO Sports, and Fine approached ESPN producers in June 2014 to discuss making a film about Daly. It had been 25 years since he blasted onto the pro golf world by winning the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Indiana. ESPN told the directors they were on board if Daly was.

MORE: Behold the John Daly experience

Spitzer and Fine didn’t receive the golfer’s approval until April 2015. They traveled to Augusta, Ga. during Masters week. Daly’s RV was parked beside a Hooters on Washington Road, 1.4 miles from the entrance to Augusta National. As fans lined up outside to buy memorabilia or take a photo with Daly, the directors and the golfer ate chicken wings inside the RV and discussed the project. Daly agreed and stepped outside. The crew began shooting immediately.

Q: What made Daly such an intriguing subject?

Spitzer: Growing up in the 90s I wasn’t a golfer but I was a huge sports fan. I was always fascinated by him not just as a golfer but as a sports character in general. The years go by, a person sort of falls off the map, and you wonder what their life is like today

Q: How difficult was it to get Daly to agree to participate?

A: It took us a while to convince Daly and his agent that we were the right people to do it, that it would be a fair story. He been burned by media in the past and didn’t want it to be a highlight reel of every bad thing he’s ever done.

Q: What roadblocks did you face?

A: They gave us trust to tell the story the way we wanted to. It helped to sell it as focusing on the 90s. In his mind, that’s what he wanted to focus on too. They didn’t give us a hit list of what we couldn’t do. After they came on board the trust was there that we could tell it the way we wanted.

Q: Daly comes across as a simplistic, country boy who likes to drink and party but he’s more complex than any singular description. You had to feel pretty satisfied with the way you were able to portray him. Was that a goal going in?

A: That was definitely important to us. Maybe your first impression is John Daly will do whatever he wants, he doesn’t care what people think. He’ll do whatever he wants, but he has some regrets, and he wishes some things turned out differently. For himself or how he was treated by others. I think he cares how he was perceived in the golf world. Or if he pissed off fans in the past, it matters to him. He cares about the sport. Hopefully a little of that sensitivity comes across. I think that makes him more real than ‘hey, I don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks,”

Q: Any funny stories you can share from the time you spent with him?

A: We had some good times down in Arkansas when we were doing interviews with him and shooting. He had a whole cookout with his buddies and us, made steaks and played basketball. We went out driving around his golf course, just some cool things and surprising things too. The shots we have of him on his lawn mower. That’s what he does every single day when he’s in Arkansas. That’s his therapy in a way. He’ll get up at 6 a.m. and just go mow the entire course for hours. It’s not even open to the public anymore, it’s just for him and his buddies. That’s just what he loves to do. Some of those things surprised us. He’s definitely fun to hang out with. He’s a great guy. What you see is what you get from him. He’s a normal guy that’s just had this insane life.

Q: What were the most difficult parts to cut from the film (which is 51 minutes).

A: We did have a lot of him in the present day. We shot for him for a week at St. Andrews. And we talked about ‘should we build something around how he’s playing there now? and if he’s still meaningful in the golf world.’ Also more with his family today, with his fiancee. The things that were harder to cut were just the original stuff rather than archival stories. Because we could’ve done a documentary just on John Daly today but we wanted to keep that story true to the 90s.

Q: Daly discusses his childhood and his troubled relationship with his father. It’s not something I’ve heard him address frequently, if at all. How difficult was it to draw those memories out of him?

A: We knew about it. But talking about it in the interview. A lot of it was just him parenting today and what model he tries to set for his kids. And in talking about that it just came across of how he wanted to treat them differently than how he was treated when he was growing up. A lot of the game and a lot of what he did in golf, he didn’t have a role model. He had to teach himself. His parents were gone a lot, especially when he was in high school. His dad traveled and worked. When he was around, obviously, they had good times and bad times. It came across as him having to teach himself a lot in life and not wanting that for his kids and wanting to be a more present Dad. 

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