The Resurrection of David Duval

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2009 at 6:27 pm
At the 2009 Open, Duval worked his career out of a decade-long bunker (photo: Doug Mills, NY Times)

At the 2009 Open, Duval worked his career out of a decade-long bunker (photo: Doug Mills, NY Times)

Yesterday Lucas Glover won the 2009 US Open, conquering the Black course at Bethpage and calmly claiming the shimmering, silver trophy as his own. But the bigger news came courtesy of the guy Glover beat, a guy many (though not Game 6) thought would never be seen atop a major golf leaderboard again. Rare though it may be, the story of this Open was written by the guy who came in second:

David Duval.

Sure, it was a slightly pudgier, slightly older version of the David Duval formerly known to the world as a No. 1 golfer and a legitimate rival to Tiger Woods, but it was David Duval nonetheless. And, boy was it good to see him. It’s been a long time.

The journey of David Duval is long, complex, and vaguely sad – as sad, at least, as the story of a man who has made upwards of $17 million as a professional athlete can be. But money can’t buy happiness, as the old cliche goes, and it certainly hasn’t brought peace to Duval’s life. No, few multi-millionaires can offer a story like that of Duval’s, one of blinding success but also of tragic, numbing failure.

Failure, for instance, to save an older brother, Brent, from cancer’s deadly clutch, even after 9 year-old David donated his own bone marrow for a transplant as a last resort . Failure to understand, after Brent died of an infection following the surgery, that his death wasn’t David’s fault. Failure to avoid walling himself off from the outside world after Brent’s death in order to retreat from the sadness, and failure to realize that doing so would alienate almost everybody in his life.

Duval’s early failures pushed him toward his father, Bob, a former PGA Tour player, and thus toward his father’s passion for golf. He submerged himself in the game, pounding ball after ball on the range, thinking only of his swing, and the ball, and the hole.

Not of Brent.

And his game blossomed and grew into a thing of beauty, and then came success. Wild, roaring success. A 1989 US Junior Amateur win. A #1 spot on the Georgia Tech golf team. Four first-team All-American awards. The National Player of the Year crown in 1993. Endorsements, Nike Tour wins, a PGA Tour card.

Instant stardom.

But the boy never changed. Never opened up, never let anyone in. Duval was still just Brent’s brother – still reeling from his past – but now he was a huge golf star, winning millions of dollars on the PGA Tour, labeled the “next big thing” by industry experts. The media wanted interviews and sit-downs, feature stories and sound bites – people were clammering to know all about this golf phenom who would take on Tiger Woods. But Duval would only mumble, offering sharp, monotone answers to a public desperate for a colorful response. So they killed him for it, calling him cold and aloof, just another spoiled athlete.  All the while, Duval strolled right on by, hidden from a world he didn’t want by his trademark M-frame Oakleys.

Duval was a member of the legendary '99 US Ryder Cup team

Duval was a member of the legendary '99 US Ryder Cup team

But, boy was he ever good. Duval won 13 PGA Tour events in between 1997 and 2001.  In the final round of the 1999 Bob Hope Classic, he submitted a 59, only the 3rd player in history ever to accomplish such a feat during a tournament. Low 60’s were routine. He torched the Tour in the late 90’s, dominating tournaments and helping the ’99 Ryder Cup team win in dramatic fashion at the Country Club in Brookline. His game was the stuff of legend. It was supposed to be he and Tiger battling over the golf throne for the next decade, maybe more, and Duval cemented his elite position with a win at the 2001 British Open, at Royal Latham & St. Anne’s.

And then it all fell apart.

More failure. Injuries to his wrist, shoulder and back, swing difficulties, a painful break-up with his longtime fiance. Suddenly, gone were the scores of 64 and 65, replaced with high-70’s, even 80’s. Gone, too, was his deadly accuracy off the tee and on the green. By 2003, Duval was out of the game on a self-induced sabbatical, only to return at the 2004 US Open where he shot 25 over-par and missed the cut. More embarassing scores and missed cuts followed. The whispers started. What happened to David Duval? Where has he gone? But then the whispers faded as people stopped caring, and finally they disappeared altogether. As far as the public was concerned, the nail had been driven into the coffin of Duval’s career. He quickly slid off the money list, out of contention, and all the way to 882nd in the world golf rankings, down from No. 1 overall. Rarely have American professional sports seen such a steep and rapid decline.

Duval's career tailspin was epic

Duval's career tailspin was epic

But Duval wasn’t giving up. He wasn’t ready to let his success give way back to failure, back to tragedy. So he grabbed his clubs and he went to work. And he worked and worked, sparking comebacks, failing, and trying again. Finally, he enlisted the help of his old Georgia Tech golf coach, Puggy Blackmon, one of the only people Duval had been close to back in his earlier years. Blackmon cued up some old video of Duval and the two went to work retooling his swing and trying to recapture some of its natural efficiency. He showed flashes of potential in tournaments, but remained spotty, inconsistent, and was plagued by confidence issues. But he kept after it and then suddenly, the momentum began to shift. Duval’s game started turning around, slowly but surely. He got married in 2004 to a divorced mother of 3 and, boom, he had an instant family. He started opening up, little by little, and with his newfound clan came a touch of ease, happiness and, bit by bit,  peace. The changes manifested themselves in Duval’s golf game, as he started off strong in 2006, making his first two cuts and finishing T-16th at the Open at Winged Foot. He still struggled with consistency, but maintained to a comeback-hungry media that his swing was there, that his scores weren’t reflective of the strength of his game. He kept chopping away at it, kept pushing, kept hoping.

And then Bethpage happened.

Out of nowhere, here was David Duval surging up the leaderboard at the 2009 US Open. By the time the rain-soaked tournament reached its final round, Duval stood at 3-under par, poised to make a serious run at the championship. Then he promptly triple-bogeyed his first hole on Monday and immediately vanished from the leaderboard and from NBC’s coverage. His brief emergence was quickly written off as just another flash of past greatness in an otherwise doomed career.

But Duval wasn’t going anywhere. Not this time.

Back he came, holing a 60 foot birdie putt on the par-3 8th and stringing together 3 consecutive birdies on the back nine. Suddenly the cameras were back on Duval, as Glover and playing partner Ricky Barnes were busy fashioning epic collapses. Suddenly the whispers were starting again. Duval’s finally back! The New York galleries went wild after Duval shot – modern crowds easily identifying with his downtrodden tale. NBC trained the camera on him and, in the unlikeliest of turnarounds, the whole world was watching David Duval, once again.

And, had it not been for a lip-out par putt on 17 and a Glover birdie on 16, Duval very well might have won the whole thing. As it happened, he came in a very respectable second and thusly announced his re-remergence on a PGA Tour badly in need of another star who can stand next to Tiger and Phil.

There’s no way to know if David Duval is back for good. We must remember, he’s shown flashes before. But this is a guy who has known the heights of success and the empty depths of failure and, if we can take him at his word, he has no plans of disappearing again. “It may be arrogance,” he said after Monday’s final round, “but [this is] where I feel like I belong.”

For now at least, Duval is back at the top and I, for one, am hoping this is where he remains – at peace in life’s fairway, with the memory of a grateful brother guiding his swing.


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