Duval back in 'control,' smiling at St. Andrews

By Joe PosnanskiJuly 19, 2015, 4:20 pm

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – David Duval is about four years older than Tiger Woods, and he emerged on the scene at just about the same time. Woods was the phenom, of course, the child prodigy who first swung a club on television when he was 3 and seemed destined for glory ever since. Duval, meanwhile, was raw intensity.

“It’s like there should be an asterisk next to my name,” he said back in those early days, when he and Woods were wrestling for the top spot on the world rankings. “Down at the bottom of the page it would say, ‘Difficult to get to know. Easy to misunderstand.’”

Duval did not play golf so much as he stared it down through his wraparound Oakleys. He carried pain from his childhood; his older brother Brent died when he was 12. David was just 9 and donated bone marrow in an effort to save Brett’s life. In rare moments of openness David would admit that he blamed himself. His parents went through a heart-wrenching divorce in the aftermath. David Duval’s escape was to hit golf balls. He loved how it felt to make golf balls answer to his whims.

That was the draw for Duval. He did not care much for acclaim, and he did not like fame at all. In 1998, he won four tournaments and more than $2.5 million – most on the Tour. He didn’t look very happy. In 1999, he won four more times in the first four months and, for 14 weeks, became the No. 1 player in the world. Woods took the spot from him in July. Duval took it back for a week in August. This looked to be the first thrilling rivalry in golf since perhaps Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus 20 years before.

And then Woods and Duval went their separate ways. It was subtle at first. Duval suffered a back injury in 2000, Woods’ magical year, but he still almost won the 2001 Masters, the one Woods won to complete the Tiger Slam. Duval did win the Open Championship that year at Royal Lytham. But after that victory, he seemed oddly unsatisfied. “It really kind of struck me that it’s just a game,” he said a few months afterward. “And I think that, having won, I realized there’s much more out there.”

He began missing cuts. From 1999-2001, he missed a total of three cuts. In 2002, he missed eight. In 2003, he missed 14 in 18 tournaments. He took a break from the game – he was beat up, he was suffering from vertigo, he was lost as a golfer. In 2005, the former No. 1 played in 20 events. He missed 18 cuts and withdrew from another tournament. He shot 80 or worse seven times, including his opening round here at the Old Course.

The fall was more or less unprecedented. There have been other steep falls in golf, of course, others in sports, but to see Duval drop from No. 1 in the world, from Tiger Woods’ presumptive rival, to someone who could not consistently break 80 was jaw-dropping and sad.

In 2006, he shot an awful 84 at Augusta. It was horrifying. I followed him around a bit the next day, just to see what it was that kept him going. I saw him play the most remarkably awful hole I’ve ever seen a professional play. On the second hole, he hooked his drive into the woods, into an unplayable lie. He dropped the ball and hit his third shot off a stake, where it bounced back into an unplayable lie. He dropped the ball again, and hit his next shot off a tree and back into the woods. His sixth shot made the fairway, his seventh dropped into a bunker, his eighth splashed on the green and he two-putted from there. That’s a 10, the worst score ever on the second hole at Augusta.

But here was the crazy part: On the back nine, Duval went crazy. He birdied 10. He hit a brilliant shot at 12 and made birdie there. He birdied 14. He birdied the killer 17th. The wind was blowing pretty good, players were falling apart, but Duval couldn’t miss. He had three or four other good looks. He shot 32 on the back and could have shot a 29. He missed the cut by a million shots, but when it was over he and his wife Susie walked to the clubhouse, and there was a big smile on David’s face. That smile has always fascinated me. In all the years since his game crashed, the question to me was simple: Why go on playing? What joy could he still get out of golf?

Sunday at St. Andrews, Duval was in the first group to tee off. Duval had made the cut somewhat heroically: He was right on the cut line Saturday when he three-putted 17 and then went to 18 to make the cut-saving birdie. “I birdied the 18th knowing I had to,” he said. “That was cool.”

In the morning he proceeded to play like his younger self. Tiger Woods had missed the cut, leaving St. Andrews entirely baffled about the state of his game. And Duval birdied the second hole, the fifth, the seventh and the ninth. He made three birdies in four holes on the back nine and got his score to minus-6, which actually put him on the morning leaderboard. He put on a display of precision that reminded so much of the younger more severe version of himself. Only this time, he seemed to be enjoying it all. That smile.

And, after the round was over – he shot 67 and is 5 under for the tournament – he explained.

“The biggest enjoyment I get in the game of golf is controlling the golf ball,” he said. “Yeah, I loved winning golf tournaments … but I loved being in control of the golf ball.

“Now, I feel like I'm entirely in control of the golf ball. I've hit some crappy shots, don't get me wrong. I've hit some really crappy shots. But it's like, okay, so I'll go hit it again now. But being in control and hitting the golf ball where you're trying to hit it, it just gives me great pleasure.”

That is what keeps so many people in the game, right? You hit all the bad shots so that you can hit just a few good ones. You deal with the agonies of golf so that, every now and again, you can have a few moments when you feel in complete control. Duval is 43 now, and it has been 14 years since he has won a golf tournament. In the last decade, he has played in 186 tournaments and made the cut in only 56 of them.

Is it worth it for good moments?

“I'll go play tomorrow and do the best I can,” he says. “Maybe I'll shoot 67 again, maybe I'll shoot 77, who knows? But I'll have a smile on my face and enjoy walking around St. Andrews, I can tell you that.”

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”