“Welcome back, David. Let’s go Big D. Great job Double D.”
The shouts of encouragement for David Duval leaped from fan to fan, one topping another until Duval acknowledged their presence with a Bill Clinton-esque thumb wave.
He smiled. He soaked it in, and oh, how good it must feel to give the faithful a reason to cheer again. Yes, Duval is in the hunt at the U.S. Open, 2 under for the tournament through two holes of the final round and tied for third place when play was suspended due to darkness.
Duval, 37, is a man who has climbed to the pinnacle of his profession and fallen to the bottom of the abyss. Even to be called in front of the media to answer inane questions, an act he once despised, is greeted with glee.
When a writer deigned to ask how it felt to be back in contention at a major again, he answered: “It’s Groundhog Day.”
So it is. Duval is partying like it’s 1999. That year, when Duval won The Players Championship it was his fourth victory of the year and 10th in a 33-month span. He supplanted Tiger Woods as the top-ranked player in the world that week.
His slump is mystifying to those who watched his brief and dominant stretch. He hasn’t won since the 2001 British Open. He has struggled to make the cut regularly on the PGA Tour. He entered this week ranked No. 882 in the World Rankings.
For a while, Duval blamed a back injury that began in 2000, bursitis in his shoulder, an injury to his wrists. He changed his swing to compensate for the physical problems and ended up losing his swing, set-up and posture.
“Everything was gone,” he said.
Duval’s decline would have been unbearable had it not coincided with meeting his wife at a restaurant in Denver during the 2003 International.
Five years ago, the aloof loner with the wraparound Oakley sunglasses got a life, marrying a divorced woman with three children. Now they have two of their own. His world no longer revolves around adding up numbers on a scorecard. He said life feels more complete, and so does his golf.
“I probably honestly enjoy it more now,” Duval said. “I have no less desire at this point than I did back then. However I probably feel like I don’t simply do it for myself anymore. And you know, that’s a nice feeling.”
Duval, who was plagued by the driver yips and unable to keep it on the map, still ranks an embarrassing 192nd in driving accuracy percentage. He has studied tape of the good ol’ days and tried to mimic his former form, but the past magic has been elusive. With a weary look on his face he has tried to make sense of it to others, answering the same question, phrased differently, but always amounting to what happened?
“I knew the process was going to be a long time and it would take a lot of work,” he said. “But you know. . . I’m just not a quitter.”
There have been false starts before: an early surge on to the leaderboard at the 2006 U.S. Open, 36 impressive holes at last year’s British Open. But those sparks turned out to be shortlived, a mere reminder of what his game once was. He shot 83 in the third round at the British and talk of a resurgence faded.
This time Duval’s improved form hasn’t come out of the blue. He surfaced on the leaderboard at the Valero Texas Open and made a cameo on the first page at The Memorial. Each time he retreated. But his confidence level soared and now he’s been on the U.S. Open leaderboard for more than a New York minute. He’s playing in the second-to-last group in the final round at a major again, a remarkable feat that has made him one of the Opens feel-good stories.
And on golf’s biggest stage, he talked about how good it felt to be able to control his ball again, the way he used to when he grabbed a driver and belt it far and straight without a thought in the world.
“I feel like I made it better,” Duval said of his swing. “I feel like I made it more reliable than it was, and I know why it works the way it works and I know how it works.”
Here he goes again with the hyperbole: “I actually think I’ve become a better striker of the golf ball.”
Such hindsight always comes with a self-serving blind spot.
For the past few years, Duval has boasted that he was close to winning again. Each time his play has made him out to be a man in denial.
And so we wonder, will this time be any different? Can No. 882 be on top of the world again?
He could. If it is still Ground Hog Day.