Duval Making Progress On his Own Terms

By Associated PressJanuary 24, 2006, 5:00 pm
David Toms was curious, like so many others who get paired with David Duval.
 
They had not played together since the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage, where Duval was the reigning British Open champion. Duval shot 78 that day, the start of a spiral into one of the most mystifying slumps in golf.

Toms didn't know what went wrong. He only saw the scores.
 
Duval's five-year exemption on the PGA Tour from his British Open victory expires this season, something he was more aware of last year when he hit rock bottom. He shot more rounds in the 80s than the 60s, and the only cut he made in 20 starts on tour was a tie for 60th in the Texas Open.
 
It is important that he plays well this year, and his start to the season did not bode well. Fidgeting over his opening tee shot at the Sony Open, trying to find a posture that didn't cause his back to lock up, Duval hit a nasty hook that one-hopped off the driving range net and settled at the base of a palm tree.
 
Double bogey.
 
On the second hole, another wild hook. Toms raced to the front of the tree-lined tee box to see where Duval's drive crossed the water hazard in case there was a question where to drop. Instead, the ball bounced off the rocks on the other side of the 20-yard stream and landed in the third fairway.
 
Next tee.
 
'There you go,' Toms said to him as Duval's drive found the third fairway, this time on purpose.
 
'I didn't know what to expect,' Toms said later. 'He said he had been swinging well at home, and then he hurt his back when he got here. I could tell he was disappointed. He hit that first tee shot, the next one ... and then he started playing well. And on Friday, other than a couple of drives, he was in control of everything.'
 
No doubt, Duval is making progress.
 
He shot 68 to make the cut on the number at the Sony Open, which he later described as a baby step.
 
What felt more like a leap was how he got to the weekend at Waialae. One shot over the cut line with two holes to play, he stood on the tee with a strong wind against him and from the left on the par-4 eighth, the toughest conditions for him to hit a fairway that he couldn't afford to miss.
 
Duval went after it and hammered the ball down the middle, leading to a birdie chance he narrowly missed. Then he pounded another drive down the middle on the par-5 ninth, leaving him a 3-iron into the green for a two-putt birdie.
 
It was too early in the year, and too far from the lead, to feel any pressure.
 
But he felt it.
 
Duval compared the jangled nerves on the eighth tee at Waialae with what he felt on the 17th tee at Sawgrass in 1999, when he hit wedge into 6 feet on the island green to clinch The Players Championship, the victory that made him No. 1 in the world.
 
If he has the kind of year he expects, remember that hole.
 
'I don't think this answers whether I can get it back,' Duval said, mocking a question that has been making the rounds lately. 'But I still know how to play, how to compete. Standing on that tee, I knew I had to make at least one birdie, if not two. And you can't hit it as good as I did on those holes. The heat was there, and I did it.'
 
More proof came last week at the Bob Hope Classic.
 
Blown away by howling wind on a new golf course in the desert, he tumbled to a 78 in the second round. But he kept plugging along, and shot 64 with an insurance birdie on the last hole to make the cut again.
 
'Are there little steps or small victories involved? Sure, I guess,' Duval said. 'Buy my goal isn't to make cuts. I know I'm playing well enough to win tournaments. It's a matter of staying with it.'
 
Duval has had ample incentive to quit.
 
Injuries have been such a part of his career -- both shoulders, right wrist, the lower back -- that he is tired of talking about it. He is financially set and has never been happier. He dotes on his wife's three children, and he and Susie now travel with Brayden, a miracle son born to them last April.
 
He is driven to play well, even if he has a hard time explaining that to his skeptics.
 
His goals might not be the same as those watching him, or even those against whom he competes. There is no greater thrill in golf than holding a trophy, something he hasn't done since Japan at the end of 2001.
 
But that hardly constitutes fulfillment.
 
Duval figured that out a few weeks after he claimed possession of the claret jug, the oldest trophy in golf.
 
'People who play the sport are viewed differently, more as entities than people,' he said. 'Their desires and goals should be about winning, and I guess I bought into it a little bit. But I've always just wanted to see how good I could be, and who knows what that measurement should be? I still have many years to find out.
 
'I know I was the best player in the world,' he said. 'I still feel like, if I'm healthy, I can be one of the better players -- whether that's top five, 10, 20, whatever.'
 
There is a long road ahead, and Duval is making progress only he can measure.
 
He went through four swing coaches in four years before reuniting last year with college coach Puggy Blackmon. His swing is looking closer to what it was in 2001, when he came within two putts of keeping Tiger Woods from his fourth consecutive major at the Masters, then captured a major of his own at Royal Lytham.
 
He is not worried about keeping his card.
 
'I feel like I won the golf swing battles,' Duval said. 'Now it's a matter of building confidence again.'
 
Related links:
  • David Duval Photo Gallery
  • Golf, by George - Duval Goes to the End and Back
     
    Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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