After stirring run in US Open, is David Duval ready to win another major title?

By Paul Newberry, AP
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is David Duval ready to come all the way back?

TURNBERRY, Scotland — As gray clouds kept spitting out rain, David Duval just went about his work at one end of the putting green. He didn’t bother with an umbrella and kept on those trademark sunglasses, even though the sun was nowhere to be found on this gloomy afternoon along the Scottish coast.

He’s always projected an air of aloofness, given off a sense that you’ll never really know what goes on behind the dark shades.

It was that way when he was the No. 1 golfer in the world. It was that way when he couldn’t hit a ball any straighter than a weekend duffer. Even now, eight years removed from his last win, he might be the most intriguing golfer at the British Open.

Last month, Duval suddenly found the game that so mysteriously deserted him just when he seemed poised for an Arnie-vs.-Jack-like rivalry with Tiger Woods.

Duval stayed in contention through all four rounds of a waterlogged U.S. Open and really looked as though he might pull off one of the most improbable victories ever, only to come up two strokes shy of Lucas Glover in a three-way tie for runner-up.

“I had a real good time,” Duval said Tuesday. “It was just great, the whole arena. I probably expected to be a little nervous and such. But if anything, I was more comfortable than I ever was, even when I was on top of my game. I just felt great. I loved it. I really felt comfortable with what I was doing and where I was.”

Now, he must show it wasn’t the greatest of flukes.

After all, Duval’s performance at Bethpage Black was his first top 10 since 2002. His check for $559,830 nearly matched what he’s made in the last five years combined on the PGA Tour. He remains far down in the world rankings at No. 145. And he still hasn’t won since the last of his 13 tour victories, way back at the 2001 British Open.

When he finished up on the putting green, Duval browsed through the pro shop at Turnberry. Then he paused for a few minutes in the center of the clubhouse, not far from the portraits of three previous British Open champions: Tom Watson, Greg Norman and Nick Price.

Might he join them before the week is out? Duval believes he is certainly capable.

“I’ve lived through what I’ve lived through professionally,” he said. “I feel like I’m a different person, a different player than I was a year or two ago, or 10 years ago even. I feel like I’m a better golfer than I was at any point in my career. Now it’s just a matter of going out and doing it. That’s all there is to it.”

It sounds so easy. It’s not, of course.

A decade ago, Duval looked as though he would be one of this generation’s most dominant players, perhaps a notch below Woods — isn’t everyone? — but certainly capable of playing the role of worthy second fiddle, a right-handed version of Phil Mickelson.

Duval challenged time and time again in the majors before he finally broke through for his first big title at Lytham eight years ago. That was supposed to be the win that pushed him over the hump. Instead, his game took an inexplicable tumble before his year with the claret jug was up.

In 2002, Duval slumped to 80th on the money list and failed to win for the first time in six years. The following year, he plummeted all the way to 211th. The shots that once soared gracefully over the middle of the fairway took aim at the gallery, a baffling barrage of hooks and slices.

Some wondered if Duval — who married, became a father and talked of finding happiness beyond the golf course — had lost that competitive edge so critical to success. He pointed to back problems as the primary culprit, saying they fouled up his swing much like a pitcher who changes his throwing motion to compensate for an injury.

Duval showed the first tangible glimpses of a comeback at this very tournament last year. He put together three solid rounds at Birkdale — 73, 69 and 71 — but a third-round 83 knocked him out of contention.

“I remember I played a lot better than my scores reflected,” he said. “Even the three days I had the lower scores, I played better than that. But for bad luck in the third round I wouldn’t have had any luck. I hit the ball really well and just got absolutely messed with the whole day. It’s one of those things that happens.”

It was also one of only five times in 20 events that Duval actually made the cut last year, and 2009 started much the same way. He headed into Bethpage having played on the weekend a mere four times in 13 tries, his highest finish a tie for 55th at Pebble Beach. But he truly felt his game was coming together.

“I feel like I was close last year,” Duval said. “This year I started saying, ‘I’m playing well.’ I don’t know exactly when it was, sometime out on the West Coast. But I knew I was playing well, I just wasn’t getting anything out of it, not shooting the scores. I didn’t feel like I was close anymore. I felt like I was there. It was just a matter of getting everything to add up right.”

While proud of his performance at Bethpage, he was hardly content.

“I was very disappointed,” Duval said. “I intended to win the golf tournament. I felt like I was playing better than anybody else. I had a couple of funny things happen to me through the course of the week and through the last round even. But still I had a chance. I fought and fought and fought and still had a chance. In the end, that’s what you look for.”

Duval certainly had plenty of fellow players rooting for him at Bethpage, perhaps because they all fear the same thing happening to them.

“Here is a guy who was on top of the world,” Kenny Perry said. “He’s been there, done it, he’s won majors, so he actually knows how to do it. It’s nice to see, and I think a lot of guys were pulling for him to win.”

Now comes Turnberry, and another chance to finish one of the greatest comebacks in golf history.

Is Duval ready to put together four rounds that are good enough to win?

That remains a mystery, much like the man himself.

“You tell me,” Duval said to a reporter. “You’re asking me questions I can’t necessarily answer. I really can’t.”

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