Hate to be Rude: An improbable treat

David Duval smiles during the third round of the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

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The most improbable story at the U.S. Open was David Duval’s return from oblivion. Lucas Glover won the tournament and co-runnerup Phil Mickelson tugged on heartstrings all week, but it was Duval who made our minds boggle, our hands slap and our imaginations stretch.

If his tie for second place out of nowhere is any indication, we are in the midst of the best comeback in golf history this side of Ben Hogan’s triumphant return from a car-bus accident. If Duval continues the brilliant play he demonstrated at Bethpage Black, golf is in for an improbable treat.

A Glover title is a magazine cover. A Mickelson victory for cancer-stricken wife Amy would have been a tear-jerker movie. A Duval triumph would have read like fiction.

Duval’s story still does. The rise to No. 1 in the world a decade ago. The fall to No. 882 in the world entering last week. A tie for the Open lead entering his last two holes. This is golf’s ultimate flight of the Phoenix from ashes.

“I’m just not a quitter,” Duval said.

Guess not. Based on what happened at the Black, truer words have never been spoken.

Duval now will go the British Open next month at Turnberry not just as a field-filling past champion or as a sympathetic figure or as an invisible afterthought. He’ll go as a player to watch.

Not exactly like the old days, when he was among the favorites. But as someone to keep an eye on, as someone who now wouldn’t shock if he woke up the echoes all the way.

Here’s what Duval did at Bethpage: He got people to stop rolling their eyes. That was the common reaction when the last couple of years he’d say things like “I’m close” and “I’m a top-10 player” and “Have you watched me play?”

He often came across as delusional. His results and words didn’t match. No top 10s since 2002. Eight made cuts in 49 starts in 2003-05. No finish better than 36th in 2007. Five made cuts in 20 starts and a rank of 234th in earnings last year. Four made cuts in 13 starts and a best finish of T-55 this year entering the Open.

And he almost won. Are you kidding me?

“Maybe people will stop asking if I’m playing well,” he said after finishing two strokes behind Glover.

Duval has a chance to write one of golf history’s best chapters. The way he looked at Bethpage, where he ranked first in birdies and putting, I wouldn’t put it past him. At 37, he still has time and is motivated again. At Bethpage, he had his swagger back, kept hitting the ball where he was aiming and kept coming back from adversity.

He was the surprise house guest who wouldn’t leave. He bogeyed four of the first six holes of the second round but regrouped and shot 70. He triple-bogeyed his first hole Monday morning, No. 3 in the fourth round, yet climbed back into a tie for first through 70 holes.

“I’m more relaxed because I’m very comfortable with how I’m playing,” he said.

The return of Duval is a victory for self-belief and patience. He has believed while so many have doubted.

Sure, his free fall after his 2001 British Open victory was a perfect storm. Various injuries (back, wrist, shoulder, neck) led to bad swing habits to poor play to too much advice to a loss of confidence to the abyss. He went from one of the game’s best long-straight drivers thanks to a reliable power fade to someone who fought a hook.

He sought swing counsel from about a half dozen teachers over a couple of years. Such overload of conflicting opinions would have short-circuited Jack Nicklaus, circa early 1970s.

What you saw at Bethpage was the culmination of work over the past four years. Duval started restoring his swing in 2005 under the guidance of his old team, college coach Puggy Blackmon and golf pro father Bob. He has reverted to the unorthodox, highly effective, strong-gripped, head-releasing swing that made him rich and famous.

“David’s swing had gotten long, he was reverse pivoting, standing up (at impact) and losing his spine angle,” Blackmon said this week. “At any moment his ball could go 100 yards off line. A lot of what we’ve done is go back to what he did so well. His swing is back on plane again and he’s rotating again.”

A couple of years after marrying into a ready-made family of three children, Duval said in early 2006 that he was in love with the game again. He found peace and happiness and his life had balance for a change. Now he and wife Susie have two children of their own.

“I’d really like for my wife and my family to see how I can actually play this game,” he said. “They haven’t seen me at my best, and I want them to.”

Duval actually showed flashes of coming back in 2006. Though he missed the Masters cut with 84-75 that year, he had the field’s lowest back-nine score of the second round (32). He went from chop to the old Duval in the blink of an eye. And that 32 could have been in the 20s, for he missed four putts inside of 22 feet, including a 12-foot lipout at No. 13 and a couple of 15-footers that cruised edges.

Then in June 2006 he surprised by tying for 16th at the U.S. Open, one of his three top 25s that signaled improvement that year. Sensing a comeback, I bet someone at the end of ’06 that Duval would win in 2007. When I mentioned the wager to Duval, he said, “You made a good bet.”

But his progress was halted when he played only seven Tour events in 2007, staying home with his family when Susie was subjected to bed rest during a difficult pregnancy.

“I knew the process was going to be a long time,” he said of his resurgence.

Since returning full-time in 2008, he has played well in spots, a round here, a round there, never four in a row.

Until Bethpage, of all places. He earned far more at the Open, $559,830, than he did in the five previous seasons combined.

“My patience was most tested over the last (year) when I really felt like everything was falling together but nothing good was happening for me,” Duval said.

He says he understands his swing better than he did when he was No. 1. He says his swing is more reliable than ever. He says he’s a better ball-striker.

If that’s true, if he builds on Bethpage, if dreams come true, if first can become last and then first again. . . then the best will be more about weaving a tale than striking a ball.

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