Seeing him on the Byron Nelson Championship leaderboard, though, after a 4-under 66 that included three straight birdies to finish, is more startling than usual, especially after his untimely injury on the eve of the opening round.
If Twitter is the modern-day equivalent to unconventional poetry, then Duval launched into an epic ballad Wednesday night. He wasn’t bemoaning his famously downtrodden performance since once being world’s No. 1 and a major champion. He was simply alerting the masses to one of the many travails of being a professional golfer.
It can be a bumpy road back.
When he arrived here on Tuesday, his right elbow hurt. He doesn’t know what happened, only knows that he was in pain. He hit 20 balls on the range, maybe 30. That was all he could handle. He met with a doctor that night, who gave him a cortisone shot to help alleviate the pain.
A shot in the elbow is not fun. The things we do to play golf.
He returned on Wednesday, tried to play again, but the pain continued. It was so painful, in fact, that he couldn’t drive after leaving the course.
“My oldest boy, who was caddying for me, he had to drive,” Duval admitted. “I was like, I can't drive a car. I can't use my right arm.”
Appreciate the great wishes. Just a hiccup. If I can't peg it tomorrow I will be ready the next time.
That might sound more optimistic than he really was. Deep down, Duval believed Thursday might be a wash, just another in a long line of disappointments in his career over the last dozen years.
“It's fair to say that as of 11:30, a half-hour before I was supposed to tee off I was contemplating if I should play,” he said, “because my arm has been so bad for this week, and it was hurting again.”
The difficulty with the decision is in trying to be fair to the list of alternates. Do [I] want to start if I can't finish.
There has been what some players call “an epidemic” this year, with a handful of big-name players competing for one day, deciding they’re either too injured or too ill or – let’s just say it – too far back to contend, and then withdraw, leaving the first alternate with a bad taste in his mouth as he travels home.
Duval isn’t one of these players.
As serendipity would have it, the first alternate entering Thursday morning was a fellow major champion who has also struggled in recent years. Lee Janzen’s name was at the top of that list and Duval was cognizant of the fact that he didn’t want to take a spot in the field if he couldn’t compete to the best of his abilities. And he certainly didn’t want to take a spot away from Janzen.
I should know pretty quick in my warmup tomorrow.
Actually, he didn’t. The injury didn’t miraculously heal itself during his warmup, but Duval figured that maybe hitting a shot every three or four minutes on the course would serve him better than banging a ball every 30 seconds on the range.
“I went over and talked to Lee and said, ‘I’ve got to try to play. ... I have to tee off. I think I can finish. I think I'll be OK.,’” Duval said. “They say it's 24 to 48 hours before [the injection] starts to kick in. I don't know what time it is, but it was 4:30, so I got it 39, 40 hours ago and I'm starting to feel better.”
His game is starting to feel better, too.
Three weeks after a T-25 at the Zurich Classic – his best result since late 2011 – all those years of trying to find past glory could be on the verge of coming to fruition. Duval found himself at even par with five holes to play on Thursday, but birdied four of the last five. That left him one stroke behind leader Peter Hanson, in a share of second place – the first time he’d gotten into that position on a leaderboard in almost exactly 12 years.
Luckily my problem is muscular. Time will help. Just don't have much of it right now.
As it turns out, he had just enough time. From the injury to the cortisone shot to the painful warmup, Duval’s inclusion in the tournament was a question mark from the start. He said afterward he was more surprised that he actually played than played well, which should speak volumes about how much the injury was bothering him.
There’s an old axiom in golf: Beware the injured golfer.
Following his opening round, Duval professed that he’d never heard that one before, but it might turn out to be prophetic.
As for his score, well, there could be a little symbolism there, too. Just when we least expect him to succeed, he surprises us.
In this instance, Duval even surprised himself.