David Duval understands completely. He knows when tournament directors turn down his request for a sponsor exemption to their event it isn’t because they don’t like him or don’t respect who he once was as a player.
“The truth is I’ve played myself into this position,” he said recently. “It’s up to me to try to play my way out of it. But it’s not easy.”
It isn’t easy when you have to depend on the kindness of others to get a chance to play. But that’s where Duval is at age 42 – 13 years removed from winning the British Open and 15 years after he was the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
Duval has teed it up seven times since the wraparound season began last October. He played once in October; twice in November; didn’t play in January; played twice in February; once in March and once in April. It’s likely he won’t play at all in May.
Duval won 13 times on Tour before he turned 30 – including the 2001 British Open – his most important and, as it has turned out, final victory. Since then he has been golf’s mystery man, someone who went from thinking of himself as someone who could look Tiger Woods in the eye to becoming virtually invisible in what felt like the blink of an eye.
Duval has given a lot of thought to what happened to him after his signature victory at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. He had been close in other majors – most notably the 1998 Masters where he was sitting in the Bobby Jones cabin on Sunday with then-Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens as Mark O’Meara lined up his birdie putt on the 18th green. At that moment, O’Meara, Fred Couples and Duval were all tied at 7 under par and, unless O’Meara made the putt, the three were heading for a playoff.
“No need to worry here, David,” Stephens said. “Nobody ever makes this putt.”
O’Meara made the putt.
“The second the ball disappeared Mr. Stephens stood up, put his hand out and said, ‘Look forward to seeing you next year,’” Duval said, able to laugh at the memory now. “Then he walked out the door.”
Golf had not only been Duval’s passion as a kid, it had been his best friend. When he was 10, his older brother Brent died of aplastic anemia, a disease that attacks the bone marrow. David donated his bone marrow to Brent but the operation didn’t save his brother. With his family in tatters, David found solace on the golf course.
“I didn’t need anyone in order to go play, hit balls or just spend hours in a bunker,” he said. “I was a pretty good baseball player, but you need others to play baseball. Golf was where I went to escape. Fortunately, I was pretty good at it.”
Good enough to be a four-time All American at Georgia Tech and then to find stardom on Tour not long after turning pro. Duval had seven second-place finishes before he got his first win on Tour, but when he finally broke though in the fall of 1997 at Kingsmill, he proceeded to win three tournaments in a row. Early in 1999 he shot 59 on the last day of the Bob Hope Desert Classic and soon after that he was ranked No. 1 in the world.
“I honestly thought back then that I could compete with Tiger on a regular basis,” he said. “Not beat him all the time, obviously, but some of the time. I thought my entire game – physical and mental – was in the ballpark with his.”
He paused. “Turned out I was wrong.”
Like everyone else in golf, Duval was blown away by what Woods accomplished in winning his Tiger Slam in 2000 and 2001. Even so, Duval’s win at Lytham should have been a beginning, not an ending. And yet, Duval clearly wasn’t the same after that victory.
“A lot of things happened,” he said. “When I won, it was thrilling, absolutely fantastic. But not long afterwards I realized I didn’t feel any different about who I was or about my life than I had before I won. It was an existential type of thing, you know, is that all there is? I thought my life should be different – feel different – and it really didn’t. Something went out of me there.”
Soon after, happiness intervened. He met Susan Persichitte while waiting for a table in a Denver restaurant and was smitten instantly. They were married, he adopted her three children and they had two of their own. No longer was golf Duval’s best friend or his No. 1 priority.
His game – when he played – spiraled. There were some injuries thrown into the mix, too. Duval had a five-year exemption after his British Open win. When that was up he was able to use two more yearlong exemptions because he was in the top 25 on the career money list. After that he began to depend on sponsor exemptions.
There were spasms of good play: his out-of-nowhere tie for second place at the 2009 U.S. Open when he came into the championship ranked 882nd in the world. There was a second place at Pebble Beach the following year, which helped him get his exempt status back at the end of that season. Since then, there have been very few encouraging moments. Which is why Duval understands when tournament directors turn him down for sponsor exemptions in spite of his past status as a star.
“David will always be someone who I give serious consideration to,” said Kym Hougham, tournament director for the Wells Fargo Classic. “For one thing, he’s David Duval. For another, he’s one of those guys who treated people well when he was on his way up the ladder and that’s something you remember. I get a lot of guys who are struggling asking for sponsor exemptions who were impossible to deal with when they were going well. That’s an easy no.
“David’s a hard no. This year, it was close but I had to say no. We’d given him exemptions two of the last four years. I like to use as many spots as I can for guys with local ties. I had three local guys (out of four spots) and David just didn’t make the cut. Doesn’t mean he won’t next year if he asks. I called and left him a message telling him I was sorry he hadn’t made it. He actually called me back to thank me for calling. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Duval understands the position that Hougham and other tournament directors are in. His game has been MIA for a while. And yet, he believes it’s still out there somewhere.
“I feel better about my game right now than I have in a long time,” he said just before the start of the Zurich Classic. “Problem is it’s tough to prove that if you aren’t playing. I’m playing this week and then may not play for five weeks.”
Duval was hoping to finish top 10 in New Orleans so he wouldn’t need a sponsor exemption in Charlotte. He played well for three days and was T-12 going into Sunday. But a Sunday 73 dropped him to a tie for 25th place. Even so, it was his best finish since a tie for 23rd in Las Vegas in 2011.
Now, though, he has to wait for another chance to play. He will try to qualify for the U.S. Open and play in Memphis in June. After that, he doesn’t know.
“I’m not ready to give up,” he said. “If I honestly thought I was done, I’d just stay home. But I don’t think I am.”
Here’s hoping he’s right.