Duval's excellent U.S. Open adventure

Originally Published: June 19, 2004
By Jaime Diaz | Golf World

David Duval took a long time to hit his final drive at the U.S. Open last Friday. Looking out at the tumbling fairway of the ninth hole at Shinnecock Hills, he made a couple of extra practice swings and lingered on his preshot visualization.

He had his driver out -- the club with which he has gone from first to worst -- and his manner made it clear he very much wanted a good one for the road. He striped a power fade down the middle like it was 1999 and held the finish as the ball climbed against the classic backdrop of the old clubhouse on the hill -- savoring, remembering, perhaps lamenting. For a brief, wistful moment, he had what he once sought relentlessly, but now with ambivalence -- control of the golf ball.

Unfortunately, the enduring truth of Duval's surprise U.S. Open pop-in is that after eight months away from tournament play that included several sessions with David Leadbetter, he still doesn't know where his tee shots are going. Though skeptics wondered, Duval said he enjoyed climbing under the ropes and taking heavy punches from the game's most punishing championship. But his actual golf shots gave him no chance to be competitive.

David Duval
David Duval's return was a struggle after an opening birdie.

Duval shot 83-82, the highest two-round total of his pro career, missing the 36-hole cut by 20 strokes. He hit six fairways and nine greens, last in the field in both categories. He was torn asunder by two opposite tee shots, a breathtaking push-slice so dramatic, it encouraged an only slightly less off-line pull hook. If tour golf is best measured by the quality of a player's misses, Duval's misses at Shinnecock, even during two days of minimal wind, were as far off the charts as they were off the fairway.

His sprayed tee shots drew gasps from his large and supportive gallery, fidgety silence from his playing partners, wincing disappointment from family and friends from his new home in Denver, including his wife, Susie, who was watching him play tournament golf for the first time.

"Oh, those weeds," she said ruefully of the knee-high fescue beyond the primary rough that too often engulfed her husband's ball. Through the worst of it, Duval remained admirably resolute. He never slammed a club, uttered an epithet or emoted in any way that distracted his playing partners, Scott Hoch and Phillip Price.

"This week wasn't about scoring," Duval said. "I expected to hit bad shots, to be taking unplayables, to hit it in the high grass. But I also hit a lot of really solid shots, good chips, good putts, little things. For what I was trying to accomplish, I think I did as well as anything I've ever accomplished."

Still, to most of his fellow pros, Duval's decision to jump past the deep end and into the abyss was a head-scratcher. "I know I would not play the Open as my first tournament back in a long time if I was having problems with my game," said a bemused Hoch. "The danger would be getting more down about things. He's got a ways to go. Sure hope he gets there."

On the eve of the championship, Leadbetter sounded supportive but worried. "It's a very brave decision," he said. "There's always risk, but David has to start somewhere, and I suppose as long as he's happy [with] himself and keeps his expectations low, he has nothing to lose."

Duval's original teacher, his father and Champions Tour veteran Bob Duval, was also concerned about the perils of Shinnecock. "I don't feel the scars will be too deep, because David's gained a lot of strength and perspective," he said. "Before Susie, I think it would have been dangerous."

In contrast, swing instructor Jim McLean could see nothing to gain. "To me and a lot of people I've talked to, it's unreal to play in that championship with his game in that condition. It can't do him any good. Just stunning."

A singular voice among the players was Tiger Woods, who upon encountering Duval near the scoring trailer after the first round, embraced him. "He's probably doing the right thing in a weird way," said Woods. "You know the U.S. Open is going to be tough, and if he plays poorly, so will a lot of other guys."

Meanwhile, the message from the New York galleries was a unified "welcome back." Duval's persona may be considered diffident to many, but his willingness to take the big stage with an impaired game was endearing to fans renowned for measuring an athlete's heart. On the course Duval was encouraged with shout-outs like "Keep your chin up, David!" and received warm and prolonged receptions whenever he approached a grandstand. Duval was genuinely moved "to the point of tears," and responded by nodding, waving, tipping his cap and raising his putter, the connection made stronger without his customary wraparound shades.

"I've never been received this way - not for winning golf tournaments, not for shooting 59 and not for winning the British Open," he said. "I think it has to do with acting as a professional and a gentleman, and the human factor that everybody struggles in this game. It's a very hard game."

This is a more outwardly emotional Duval -- changed by marriage in March and the three stepchildren, in-laws and new friends that have come with it -- and he reached his decision to play emotionally and intuitively. Part of it was his affinity for the national championship, a relatively pain-free lower back and some newfound confidence in a swing rebuilt most recently by playing alone rather than practicing under the eye of Leadbetter. A lot was wanting to show his wife, who had not known he was a golfer when they met last August, what "had consumed my life for so long." The rest was the most important element for a player who late last year had even those closest to him wondering if he would ever play competitively again -- finding that he missed tournament golf.

So during a solitary round at Cherry Hills near his new home in Denver the Saturday before the Open, Duval hit three good drives and suddenly knew he wanted to go to Shinnecock. "He came into the house, and it was on his face," said Susie. "We hugged, and he said, 'This is it, I'm ready to go back.' I kind of knew it would be soon. He had started to watch golf on TV again."

Duval was both emotional and at ease when he met the media Wednesday. Ten pounds heavier after curtailing his workout regimen, he reflected on the past ("Through it all, my mistake was I had what I thought was a pretty broad goal, but it turned out to be pretty narrow, and that was simply to see how good I could become in this game"), reveled in his present ("I've just found where I'm supposed to be") and worried about his immediate future.

"I sit here very nervous about this week," he admitted, pausing to take a deep breath. "Scared in a sense, too."

That was clear an hour later when he joined friends Davis Love III and Fred Couples for his only practice round. Although his partners tried to keep things light, more than a dozen media members were present, and Duval knew he was under scrutiny. After Love and Couples hit their drives, Duval quickly teed up a 3-wood, barely took a practice swing and, as an announcer finished saying "Welcome David Duval," smacked a pull hook toward the hospitality tents, the ball bouncing once before hitting a spectator, Long Island resident John Degraw, in the head. ("Knocked me for a loop," said Degraw, who was not seriously injured.) Duval put another drive in play, but the cold reality, that this was not hit-and-giggle golf, had set in.

Duval steeled himself admirably when he returned to the first tee at 7:40 the next morning for his opening round. This time he blasted a perfectly struck 3-wood to within 50 yards of the green, pitched to 10 feet and holed the birdie putt. "Easy game," he said to his father on his way to the second tee. But things became hard quickly. On both the fourth and fifth holes, pulled drives led to unplayable lies and consecutive double bogeys. On the back nine, he bogeyed seven of eight holes before finishing with a double bogey. "It's hard to watch him go through it," said Bob Duval, who walked every hole. "Especially when you think back to the good times."

Still, after shooting 83, a cheerful Duval called the round "an enormous victory for me. I'm right on the edge. The only thing I want to do right now with my golf swing is smooth it out just a little bit more, and man, watch out, it'll be good then." Duval had hopes for significant improvement in the second round, but they were dashed early after a flared opening drive on the 10th led to a double bogey, followed by another double on the 13th and, after another huge push-slice out of bounds at the 15th, a triple. He finally holed an eight-footer for bogey on No. 9 for a closing 82, and again stood patiently and cooperatively before the media. Asked his favorite moment of the week, he said, "probably getting to the place I was staying this week and not wanting to leave. You laugh, but all I've wanted to do when I've showed up at my accommodations in the past year was leave."

The comment hung in the air, a reminder of how close Duval still is to not wanting to play at all. Although he said he intended to play in the British Open at Troon and The International in his new hometown, he remained noncommittal. "There's no reason to bombard myself or my wife and kids with lots of tournaments just for the sake of tournaments," he said. "I didn't take all that time off to do that. Next time I'm ready to play is when I'll show up."

What's clear is that Duval, at 32, barring a miraculous "I've got it" moment, faces a difficult road back to anywhere near the No. 1 ranking he achieved for 15 weeks in 1999, assuming he chooses to take it at all. He has already surpassed Ralph Guldahl -- who won two U.S. Opens and a Masters between 1937 and 1939, but won his last event in 1940 and was finished as a competitor by age 30 - in experiencing the most precipitous fall from the top in golf history.

"I could see that David was antsy and couldn't get into a flow," said Leadbetter, who hasn't worked in person with Duval for more than three months. "Right now he's lost that acute awareness of where the clubface is. David used to come into the hitting area with a shut face and basically held the club open through the ball. It's the way Lee Trevino swung, and it can be very accurate. But I think his back injury changed the dynamics in his transition, so he isn't starting down as strongly, and he began coming into the ball with clubface open for the first time. When he holds his hands through the hitting area, he hits that big push-slice. To compensate, he has to rotate the clubhead to the left, which is a very foreign feeling to him. When he overdoes it, he hits the pull, something he never did when he was winning."

Trevino, who acknowledges possessing "poor fundamentals," said he practiced as much as he did to compensate. Duval, in contrast, has stopped hitting a lot of practice balls. "I've incorporated a lot of what David [Leadbetter] has taught me, especially about improving my posture, but right now we both agree I just need to go play."

What's complicated is Duval really doesn't want to play much, either. In a situation that cries for him to become the tenacious "Double D" who was consumed by the game, Duval is more ambivalent than ever. He may have displayed guts and poise at Shinnecock, but he hasn't displayed true commitment. Without it, he has no chance to regain what he so sorely lacks if he truly wants to be competitive - control of the ball.

Jaime Diaz is a senior writer at Golf World magazine

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