2006 Masters: Duval faces his last Masters appearance

AUGUSTA, GA. | You are a child of the South, and this place has resonated since you were high as a hybrid club. As a pee-wee, you’d ride up from north Florida with your golf pro dad and see the Masters and all that brightly colored ambience with your own wide eyes. At 16, you and your budding game played Augusta National with him. You matriculated at a college a couple of hours down the Georgia asphalt, and a blond boy’s bond grew. Mix all that and how can you not fantasize with HDTV clarity?

You not only had all those green jacket dreams, you almost lived them. Four times, actually. Every time, in 1998 through 2001, you were there on the last nine. Two seconds, a third and a sixth. Many highs, too many letdowns for one heart.

But now you have played what might have been your last Masters. Your five-year exemption from the 2001 British Open victory has expired, and who knows if your journey from that unthinkable slump will lead this way again?

So it was that David Duval stood in a quiet Augusta National locker room late Friday afternoon and cleared out his cubicle. He pulled out shoes and balls and myriad other things swoosh-logoed. This was a sad and solitary house cleaning, a lonely and unlikely departure, a necessary task following a cut-missing 84-75.

If his body language didn’t indicate emotions were swirling within, his four simple words, post pause, did when he was asked what this tournament means to him.

“A lot of heartache,” Duval said softly.

You could see the pain on his face. You could hear it in his words, as he talked, in a low voice, about his close calls here. He would point particularly to the runner-up finishes of 1998 and ’01, where he bogeyed the short 16th, and the tie for third in 2000, where indecision led to a blocked iron shot into the water at No. 13.

“I could’ve won three times,” he said.

These are different times. Now he’s trying to get back to that level, trying to embrace the climb, trying to remember positives related to his former No. 1 perch, trying to reclaim confidence, trying to overcome a dodgy back.

Now he’s a bit pudgy again, physically resembling the Duval of the late 1990s. instead of the cut specimen of 2000-02. More important, he has reverted to the unorthodox, highly effective, strong-gripped, head-releasing swing that made him rich and famous. He has restored it over the last year under the guidance of his old team – his father, Bob, and college coach Puggy Blackmon.

Those close to him say he’s happier than ever. He married a delightful Denver woman, Susie Persichette, in 2004, and he has basked in a family life that includes three of her children and their own 1-year-old. He has gained perspective if not more hardware.

“He filled a void that had to be filled, and he’s happy,” Blackmon said.

Though his game crashed in 2003, sports talk shows still want to know what happened. The questions seem to come every time he shoots in the 80s or loses to a girl or a grandfather.

The answer isn’t complicated. He suffered assorted injuries – back, wrist, shoulder, neck. Swing compensations crept in. Confidence waned. And he experimented with numerous swing changes.

“A perfect storm of confidence-busting,” his agent, Charley Moore, called the spiral.

In less than two years he worked with at least six swing advisers (father Bob, Jack Lumpkin, David Leadbetter, Jim Hardy, Hank Haney and Blackmon) and two mental coaches (Bob Rotella and Gio Valiante). Eight gurus, no matter how pedigreed, would’ve wrecked Jack Nicklaus circa 1972.

“I understand what he’s gone through, and I’ve told him to stick with one (instructor),” said former British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch, who suffered one of the most pronounced declines in the game’s history. “I saw at least 25 teachers trying to get it back.

I was taking lessons from caddies on my way to the first tee. I was willing to listen to anyone. And I used to pretend to be a different player, try to be like someone like Davis Love III and visualize his swing.”

On top of advice overload, Duval suffered a letdown after the Open Championship victory, the last of his 13 trophies in 1997-01. “Is this all there is?” he asked himself after finally winning a major. He lost motivation. The last two years, family life became his primary focus. He sometimes gave the impression golf didn’t matter, that snowboarding or workouts were more important.

But now, at 34, Duval seems to have the fire back. You make only 11 of 57 cuts since 2002, including one of 20 last year, and maybe it’s time to get busy or get out.

“He wants it so bad for the kids, to show them,” Bob Duval said. “He’s not going to quit. I thought he might not play (in the Masters second round after the opening 84). But he said, ‘What kind of example would that be for the kids?’ ”

No, he didn’t bail. Rather he fought back in a remarkable way. Duval’s 2006 Masters was about extremes. He went 19 over par on his first 20 holes, 4 under on his last 16. In the second round, he had the field’s highest score on the front (43) and lowest (32) on the back. In no time, he went from someone who looked like he would never regain winning form to the confident Duval of 1999 who ruled the world ranking.

Voyeurism into a man’s personal agony turned into pleasant viewing, just like that. And all the while his stoical countenance did not change.

“He’d be a very good poker player because you can’t tell what he’s doing (good or bad),” said Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champion, who played with Duval on Friday.

Duval could have quit after making a 10 on the par-5 second hole, where he hooked a drive left, took two drops and hit two trees, a hazard stake and a bunker. He hit everything but the fairway.

That’s his nemesis – the round-wrecking hook that still creeps in. The killer hook led to double bogey or worse five times over seven par-5 holes at The Players Championship and Masters. Back when he was winning regularly, he missed left about once per year.

Both Bob Duval and Blackmon say the hook will disappear the more confident he becomes. Blackmon says it’s a result of tentative, slow body rotation on the downswing that leads to a flip with the hands.

But what came after the 10 was a stunning reversal. If you watched him on the back nine, you would understand how he shot 63 and 64 in his first two 2006 tournaments. You would understand how Duval played six holes in 5 under at Tucson in February, prompting Nick Price to say Duval looked as good as ever and appeared back in form.

If you watched him play the back nine, where he hit shots stiff at 12 and 14, you would forget about all those gory numbers he has put up the last four years. His day-low 32 could have been in the 20s, for he missed four putts inside 22 feet, including a 12-foot lipout at 13 and a couple of 15-footers that cruised edges.

“That looked like the old David out there,” Bob Duval said. “I’m very encouraged.”

If you watched him play the back nine, you came away figuring he’s going to win again. If you saw him, you would understand Blackmon, his college coach and mentor, when he says, “He’s very close to something special happening.”

Point is, many eyes were opened.

“I was very impressed,” Mize said.

Duval would say later, while emptying that locker, that his back finally didn’t hurt at a tournament. He didn’t say much else, politely declining that and other interview requests, saying he wasn’t in the mood to answer all kinds of “last Masters” questions. Not when he has been on record saying he expects to be back many times.

What’s certain, he and his camp maintain, is that he wants to get back to the elite level. This commitment comes two years after he made a self-deprecating commercial in which he broke glass, not par.

Baker-Finch and Jerry Pate, another champion whose performance free-fell after injury, said Duval must immerse himself in the game if he wants to return to his previous level.

“He has to be totally into golf again,” Baker-Finch said. “Ninety percent is mental and the other 10 percent is all in his head. It’s all belief. You have to build layers of confidence. The question is, Does he want to keep putting effort into it for lesser rewards than winning?”

Duval said in March that that he’s in love with golf again. He said playing and practicing are fun now that he knows what he’s doing again. Wife Susie talks of him being “very driven.” Now it seems his putting and confidence need to catch up with his joy.

“I think you’d have to go back to 2001 or some of ’02 for the last time I hit the ball this solid,” Duval told the Florida Times-Union. “The hardest part right now is patience, and letting things come to me, because I know I’m playing better than the scores I’m shooting.”

Bob Duval and Blackmon say their student is much better on the range and in practice rounds than in competition. “He hits it perfect in practice,” the father said. In fact, Duval shot 68-67 during 90 holes at the TPC at Sawgrass the weekend before The Players Championship, prompting practice partners Hank Kuehne and father Bob to say Duval would have won the TPC had they played it then.

But Duval would miss the cut at The Players in his hometown, and once again his family would listen to rude remarks in the crowd. “It’s unbelievable what you hear in the galleries,” Bob Duval said. “I wanted to tap a guy on the shoulder and say, ‘Have you ever been No. 1 in the world in your profession, or in anything, other than being a No. 1 (jerk)?”

Duval now moves forward with the intention of playing perhaps 25 tournaments this year. That busy schedule reflects rekindled enthusiasm.

“It’s an interesting journey and he’s having fun with it,” Rotella said. “I’m glad to see he’s having a ball climbing the mountain again. He’s in uncharted territory in a whole new challenge. It’ll be interesting to see how his story turns out.”

Blackmon eagerly awaits as well. So confident is the coach that his vision sees color, the shade that means so much to Duval.

“I think he’s going to be back soon,” Blackmon said. “I’d be shocked if I go to my grave without him having a green jacket.”

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