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

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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.”