This week at Royal Lytham & St. Annes David Duval returns to the top of the mountain. Or maybe the seaside links was rock bottom; it’s difficult to tell when you are examining a career dotted with equal parts peaks and valleys.
At the time the claret jug slipped into Duval’s hands with surprising ease. In 1999 he’d scaled to the top of the world golf ranking and had rifled off 11 victories in 34 starts. When he arrived on the English coast in 2001 Duval was the consensus “best player without a major” and by the time he birdied the 13th hole late Sunday the closing lineup quickly turned into a coronation.
But for Duval his three-stroke victory was all at once pinnacle and tipping point.
Imagine a singular lifetime focus cascading into a momentary blur of emotions and epiphanies. Imagine scaling the mountain only to discover that the view was just as good at base camp.
David Duval, machine-like in his prime and virtually emotionless, was almost immediately consumed by a haunting notion: Is this it?
Some of Duval’s post-Open letdown had to do with how imperfect his performance had been at Royal Lytham. He was slicing the ball so badly that week that he refused to go to the practice tee when the wind was blowing from left to right and the “best shot of his career” was a 6-iron from the left rough at the long par-4 15th hole to 16 feet for a two-putt par.
Not exactly the kind of heroic tale one would expect from a player with Duval’s pedigree.
“It’s a lot easier than I’ve been making it,” Duval recalled in an interview with Golf Channel earlier this year. “I certainly won that golf tournament without playing my best golf or at least the way I wanted to play.”
But the emotional letdown that followed his Open victory ran deeper than simply a “B” game breakthrough. His dogged pursuit of perfection had delivered the claret jug but virtually no clarity of thought.
The official line on Duval’s post-2001 British Open career is riddled with injuries large and small that sent the one-time boy wonder spiraling into a professional abyss, but the armchair psychologist will suggest it was a broken heart that essentially fueled the slump.
“That existence to me, in the end, is a miserable one,” Duval said. “It’s a solitary existence. That pursuit of greatness trying to get as good as you can get, you pay a price for it in some way. I don’t know if it’s with your soul or your psyche.”
In retrospect it seems Duval left a bit of his soul on Lytham’s 18th green that glorious Sunday. He’d reached Valhalla only to discover that he had no interest in hero worship.
As if on cue, Duval met Susie Persichitte shortly after Lytham and the two were married in March 2004. Susie had three children from a previous marriage and the couple quickly added two more to the family.
As if overnight one of the Tour’s most determined, some would even say detached, competitors had gone quality of life.
“I have tremendous guilt when I leave because I know how hard it is to run the house,” Duval said. “I hate having to leave but that is the lifestyle that comes with this job.”
As rewarding as his newfound home front is, it now is apparent that some part of the competitor was lost during the transition.
Last year Duval finished outside the top 125 in earnings for the eighth time in his last nine seasons. There were flashes of the Duval of old, like his runner-up showings at the 2009 U.S. Open and 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but the consistency that defined the early part of his career was gone.
The ultimate scorecard came by way of the world ranking, In less than 10 years Duval tumbled from No. 1 in the world to No. 882.
In 2007 and ’09 he played the Tour on one-time career money list exemptions (top 25 and top 50) and in ’08 he was exempt via a major medical exception. Last year Duval finished 152nd in earnings and came up short in December at Q-School.
For all his struggles, however, Duval’s mind remains willing. He still envisions the kind of golf he played when he reached the peak in 2001 at Lytham, only this time there will be family waiting on the 18th green to celebrate with him.
“It’s been a long process but it’s not over,” Duval said. “I haven’t put myself in a position to say I’m all the way back. I feel a little premature talking about it but I feel confident in what I’m doing again.”
It’s worth noting that of Duval’s 13 PGA Tour titles it is the claret jug that remains perched in the office of his Denver home. It is, like Duval, a bit tarnished but still resolute. It’s also worth pointing out that the 2001 Open was Duval’s last Tour victory, news that seems to surprise Duval.
“Was it?” he asked. “If that’s my last win then it’s a good one.”