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The Curious Case of David Duval

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Project 99I was there when ... it all fell apart for David Duval.

First thought was, “Ouch.” Second thought was, “This man couldn’t possibly have shot 59.”

I was there at the 2003 PGA Championship when David Duval couldn’t hit the ball into the ocean if he had one toe in the water. Yet, that same man, four years prior at the Bob Hope Classic, played so well over 18 holes that he wasn’t capable of hitting an approach shot outside 10 feet. Two years earlier he collected his first major triumph at the Open Championship.

That sums up the curious case of David Duval. His game has been both magnificent and manic.

It’s no shock that Duval won the 1999 Bob Hope Classic, it’s just surprising how he won it. He entered the event having won eight of his previous 27 tournaments and was within a frog hair of Tiger Woods’ No. 1 ranking.

David Duval
David Duval watches his eagle putt drop for 59. (Getty Images)
Although Duval was on people’s minds as a contender early in the week, those thoughts faded entering the fifth and final round at PGA West’s Palmer Course when he was seven shots behind leader Steve Pate. Even a nifty front-nine 31 didn’t do too much to get people in the California desert worked up.

Three consecutive birdies to open the inward nine changed the tune dramatically. Suddenly, Pate and fellow contender John Huston had company. Television producers were sent scrambling to make sure they were prepared to follow every shot from Duval, and news of the heroics had spread among the gallery creating a sudden feeling that something special was about to happen.

With 59 on Duval’s mind, he closed stronger than New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, going 2-3-3-3 over the final four holes.

The final hole produced some of the best theater in golf history. After a monstrous drive of 320 yards on the par-5 home hole, Duval had 226 yards to a back pin guarded by water on the left. He smoked a 5-iron that carried some 210 yards and ran past the hole to 6 feet. Duval calmly rolled in the eagle to shoot 59 and let out a series of fist-pumps that were forceful, yet not quite Tiger Woods-like only because they lacked practice, not emotion.

“There it is. Fifty-nine. The best final round. Ever,” was the call from ABC’s Mike Tirico.

“It was an easy 59,” said playing partner Jeff Maggert, who, by comparison, chopped it around in 66. “I’ve never seen anyone hit the ball that close for an entire round. It was sort of like a no-hitter. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing.”

Duval, 27 years old at the time, hit 11-of-13 fairways, 17-of-18 greens, had 23 putts, made 11 birdies, one eagle and hit approach shots inside of 5 feet on half of the 18 holes.

“I was more excited about the score than having the chance to win the golf tournament,” Duval said that day, Jan. 24, 1999. “I certainly had aspirations of winning, but the 59 was first and foremost in my mind.”

The year continued to be great for Duval. He won four times before the Masters, including The Players Championship on the same day his father, Bob, won on the Champions Tour. A victory the week before the Masters gave Duval the top spot in the world ranking, supplanting Woods’ stranglehold on the position for the previous 41 weeks. Duval held the position for the next three months.

Each of the next couple years got progressively worse, back problems being the biggest culprit.

What I saw in 2003 defies explanation for myriad reasons.

Duval arrived at Oak Hill for the PGA Championship in the midst of his worst season on Tour having only made four cuts in 18 starts. He hadn’t sniffed anything close to a top-20 finish.

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His back continued to give him fits, the result of years of wear and tear from the torque of his golf swing. Accordingly, Duval had developed poor swing habits trying to compensate and that was the beginning of his downward spiral.

It’s not overstating it to say that Duval played well to shoot 80 in the first round on a day when a massive widespread power outage affected 45 million people in eight states and 10 million more in Canada.

A man who once played lights-out to shoot 59, was now shooting 80 in a town without lights. Go figure.

Day 2 produced more gore than most horror flicks. Duval hit his opening tee shot 50 yards left. The collective “oohs” and “awws” from the Rochester, N.Y., gallery were both loud and sad. It was difficult to watch.

After another atrocious tee shot on the fifth hole, Duval had enough and withdrew, citing a lower back injury that appeared fine 24 hours earlier. He was 6 over after four holes with a bogey, double bogey and a triple bogey. In 22 holes he had made four doubles and a triple.

For the year, his scoring average was a skosh under 74, a far cry from the 69.1 average he collected in 1999.

I was there to witness Duval’s lowest of the low, and it was as memorable as it was horrific. It did, however, make it even more impossible to imagine what it took for Double D to shoot golf’s magic number.

At the time in 1999, scribes were writing that Duval’s 59 would get better with age, especially if he began to collect majors at what insiders believed would be a rapid pace. Well, it got better with age. Not because he got better, only, sadly, because he got much worse.

David Duval