MELBOURNE, Australia – The text message from David Duval arrived just as the Americans began to seize control for good in the Presidents Cup. The last time it was held at Royal Melbourne, he was the top qualifier for the U.S. team.
On this day, Duval was headed home from a place he never wanted to be – and making the best of it.
“It can be bumpy climbing to the top,” he wrote.
At least he was willing to start at the bottom. For the former No. 1 player in the world, whose 14 wins include the British Open, that meant going to the second stage of Q-school. Duval closed with a 70 and was the runner-up at Bear Creek Golf Club in Murieta, Calif., easily advancing to the final stage next week.
What made his journey so compelling was Duval’s brutal honesty only a month earlier.
He was on the practice range at The McGladrey Classic, barely inside the top 150 on the PGA Tour money list and not willing to think about the consequences. Duval already had used his two exemptions from the career money list. He didn’t mind going back to the final stage of Q-School, for he had done that only two years earlier.
To fall outside the top 150, however, would give him two options – go to the second stage of Q-School, or get limited starts as a past champion and spend the rest of the year asking for handouts.
Neither was terribly appealing, especially the second stage of Q-school.
“You find out what kind of ego you have,” Duval said that day. “I’ll go to the Q-school final if I have to. I think I owe it to myself to do that. But I won’t go to second stage. I just can’t. Do you know what I mean?”
Sea Island was to be his last tournament because he had accepted an invitation to play in Malaysia. Duval missed the cut, then showed up at Disney for the final official event of the year. He narrowly missed the cut again, and wound up at No. 152 on the money list.
He withdrew from Malaysia and headed home to Denver.
“It took a little bit of soul searching,” Duval said. “At that point, I had to be pretty honest with myself and where my head was and my attitude was and make some adjustments. I just decided after a little bit of time and some reflection that this is what I want to do and what I’m good at. I’m still good at it. It’s not showing right now.
“So I had to go show it somewhere else.”
That somewhere turned out to be in California against 74 players on a golf course far away from Royal Lytham, TPC Sawgrass, Kapalua, La Costa and some of the Other courses where he once won against the best in golf. Duval reached No. 1 in the world in the spring of 1999 while winning 11 times in 34 starts, a winning rate only Tiger Woods could understand.
Where his game went remains a mystery even to him. He only likes to talk about his quest to get it back.
There have been a few close calls, enough for him to believe his game is still in there. Duval was tied for the lead with two holes to play at Bethpage Black in the U.S. Open two years ago when his 5-foot par putt spun out of the back of the cup and Lucas Glover birdied the 16th behind him. Duval tied for second with Ricky Barnes.
A year later, he was tied for the lead at Pebble Beach until Dustin Johnson split the 18th fairway, setting up a routine birdie from the greenside bunker and a one-shot win, beating Duval and J.B. Holmes.
This year was a step back, and it took Duval all the way back to the second stage. Even when he turned pro out of Georgia Tech, he never had to go to the second stage. Somewhere in those three weeks after Disney, however big his ego was, it shrunk just enough.
“I’m proud of myself for going,” Duval said. “And I’m proud of how I played.”
The second stage came one week after John Daly, who has refused to go back to Q-School the last five years he hasn’t had a full card, pumped seven balls in rapid succession into the water at the Australian Open and walked off the course in the second round.
“I’m not John Daly,” Duval said. “I’m not going to not try. I could try to do it on my own or ask for help.”
He decided to help himself. Duval was not alone. The list of major champions who went back to the second stage at various parts of the country include Todd Hamilton, Rich Beem and Lee Janzen, a two-time U.S. Open winner.
None, however, reached the heights Duval once did.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been to second stage,” Duval said. “There were some underlying nerves. I mean, you’re at second stage. That’s where I was, but that’s not where I plan on being at this time next year. Like I said, there are bumps on the way back to the top. And that’s all right.”
The next leg – and what he hopes is the last leg – is the hardest one yet. Still to come are six rounds in the California desert. And even if Duval manages to get his card, he will not be assured of getting into the tournaments he once routinely played.
He still is going to need help with exemptions, and his ego is certainly not too big for that.
“It’s an easier thing to ask for help,” he said, “when you’ve tried to help yourself.”