Open Championship: Duval is a changed man

David Duval

David Duval

Conventional wisdom suggested David Duval would soar yet higher after his 2001 Open Championship success. One headline trumpeted the “rise of King David.” One first paragraph foresaw ascension because his modus operandi had been to elevate after previous breakthroughs. Duval himself fostered the notion, saying, “I imagine this will intensify my drive.”

Instead, the opposite occurred. Duval had what he playfully calls his “existential moment” soon after winning that first major championship and asked from on high, “Is that all there is?” He was 29, and hasn’t won since that 13th PGA Tour victory. In a downward spiral spawned by back injury, he went almost seven years without a top-10 finish. Atop the world ranking in 1999, he fell to No. 882 a decade later before flashing scant bolts of brilliance.

Yet the Duval who this month excitedly returns to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, site of his grandest golf glory and supposed springboard, is by all accounts a contented man. Having evolved through lessons of humility and perspective, he says he loves playing golf, even though his 2012 scores have produced two made cuts in 10 tournaments. At 40, he chooses not to ruminate on the dark days when he was “beat down” but rather bask in a loving family life that began when he married Susie Persichitte, his game-changer, in 2004.

“Having had up to this point a good career, I’m pretty lucky,” Duval said a few weeks ago in a lengthy, candid interview. “I’m one of the winners in life. So I’m not going to sit here and dwell on what could have been in golf. If that’s the path that led me to Susie and my family, it’s a no-brainer. Easy trade.”

Long a deep thinker and quirky, Duval in his golf-is-god heyday was perceived as aloof beneath those wraparound sunglasses. Warmer and more thoughtful these days, Duval sounds like a spiritualist rather than a professional athlete who has earned multimillions. Asked what he knows now that he didn’t at 30, he discounts material gain while revealing his shift in priority. A wife, two children, three stepchildren, they are his trophies.

“I know my wife and kids at home are what matters,” he said. “And happiness is what’s important. Pride in who you are as a man, a husband and father is what’s important. All the stuff around you, the fancy houses and fancy cars and whatever it may be, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. It’s just stuff. It’s clutter.”

In other words, he has had it all – just not at the same time. Hence the ongoing goal/puzzle: Excelling at golf and home life simultaneously. To drive home the point that the double is doable, the golfer’s college coach, Puggy Blackmon, took a photograph of Duval’s many magazine covers and a family portrait and told him what others have: “You can have both.”

Duval says he wants his family to see him at the “top of my powers,” a carrot that can add pressure when performance is substandard. He is further motivated by “knowing I’ve put in the work and time and I’m right on this edge of breaking through.” He maintains he is “as good as most players” when feeling well. Hence, he thinks he can produce more victories, including “another big one.”

His two mentors – his father Bob, a Champions Tour winner, and Blackmon – concur. They say his swing is in order, on plane and restored to yesteryear. Blackmon says the motion is better than it has been since 1999. That’s the year Duval shot 59, won The Players Championship and spent 15 weeks at No. 1, the latter thanks to a remarkable 11 Tour victories in 18 months.

Yet obstacles remain, namely health, confidence and perhaps preparation. Duval – playing on sponsor exemptions and past-champion status, and with no endorsements – has been plagued this year by a bone bruise on his braced left knee, and his occasional back pain has continued. Lack of success has sabotaged his confidence, to the point that his father says, “I think he still has some fear in there. It goes back to injuries and bad shots.”

Then there’s the question of whether he’s willing to dedicate himself to becoming a force again. He fought out of the abyss well enough to finish second at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black and the 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but didn’t sustain those successes, largely because of minor injury setbacks.

“I don’t know if the drive’s there to get back,” Bob Duval said. “I don’t think he’s committed like he used to be. It comes from being happy having a family. It’s hard to balance.”

The seeds of Duval’s slide were planted when he inexplicably sprained his back the week before the 2000 Open Championship at St. Andrews, where he contended midway through the final round despite playing on a Medrol dose pack and Tylenol with codeine.

“I could barely move,” he said. “That was the start of it. I’ve been dealing with (back problems) for 12 years now.”

Wrist, shoulder, neck and knee injuries followed. Trying to avoid pain during the ordeal, he compensated, and his setup and swing changed. He sought help from at least six instructors in a span of two years. He questioned his technique and wondered where his ball would go next. He did everything but take lessons from caddies on the way to the first tee, as Ian Baker-Finch did during a similar

dramatic slump. “A perfect storm of confidence-busting,” said Charley Moore, Duval’s former longtime agent.

Duval looks back and says he has but one regret: that he didn’t take several months off in 2000-01 to fully heal.

“The only one who could have fixed it was me,” said the man whose experimentation these days involves trying different clubs and balls. “And that’s by stopping playing. If the carburetor in the car doesn’t work, you can’t drive it.”

Instead, his self-esteem plummeted. He sees that, and its value, clearly now.

“Confidence is something you need to protect at all costs,” he said. “By fighting through and trying to play hurt, confidence just goes away. It’s a slow thing. So it’s slow putting (it) back together.”

The before-and-after snapshots are stunning. Duval had 63 top 10s from 1995 to 2002; he has had only four since. He missed only eight cuts in 83 starts in 1998-2001, then failed on 41 of 49 attempts in 2003-05. That leaves a man wondering what might have been.

“Had I not gotten hurt, I don’t think it’d be unfair to say I’d be at 20 wins-plus and maybe have another major championship,” he said.

Interestingly, Duval didn’t have his best stuff in the major he did win. At Lytham in 2001, he had “terrible (swing) timing” and was “jumping at the ball from the top” the first two days. He shot 69-73 and trailed by seven strokes midway. Still, he won by three at 10-under 274, thanks to a 65-67 weekend and the saving grace of a short game. His take is that he hit the ball worse than in any of his other professional victories.

He did, however, produce probably the most important shot of his career: a risky 220-yard 6-iron from foot-high wispy rough on the 465-yard 15th, the course’s toughest hole. The ball cut through the wind and ended up 15 feet from the hole.

“That,” he said, “was the golf shot that won the tournament.”

Yet to hear Duval, July ’01 hardly carries the meaning of August ’03. He was in the midst of making only four cuts in 20 tournaments that year, when by chance he met Susie at the Cherry Creek Grill in Denver. Their random bump makes him wonder if there are coincidences. They married seven months later, and Duval moved from Florida to Colorado.

“We shouldn’t have met, but we did,” he said happily. “There was a 20- or 30-minute window to meet.”

Duval was staying some 40 minutes away at Castle Pines, site of The International tournament. He and mental coach Gio Valiante chose to drive to the Cherry Creek North area and look for a restaurant.

“I just decided to get out of the box of driving range, golf course, gym, hotel,” Duval said. “You know, the Groundhog Day of professional golf. I was like five minutes from not going. We could go down to the clubhouse and eat dinner in the locker room. It’s tough to beat. But, no; we’re going to do something different one time.”

The introspective Duval brightens when he tells the story. He could go on and on about the romantic twist and the bliss that has followed. As for the sudden, wicked turn in his golf career, not so much. Why brood over that? There’s no sense in flashing back to any tearful why-me moments when there is plenty of domestic living to do and the golf dream, however repackaged, remains alive.

“That rearview mirror – just break it off,” Duval said. “Look out the windshield and go forward.”

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