PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Everyone keeps waiting for David Duval to fail.
It’s hard to blame them, really, considering the sobering facts. Duval last won a tournament at the end of 2001 in the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan tour. A year later, he finished 80th on the PGA Tour money list, which is the last time he cracked the top 125.
Duval was tied for the lead on Friday at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am until he pulled his tee shot on the par-3 17th at Pebble, which would have been a good shot in the final round, but not when the pin was cut all the way to the right on the hourglass green.
That led to some quick research.
The last time he held the 36-hole lead was in 2002 at the Michelob Championship, so long ago that not only is that tournament off the PGA Tour schedule, it’s not even on the LPGA Tour schedule.
He finished with a par for a 68 and was one shot behind a six-way tie for the lead that featured defending champion Dustin Johnson, Paul Goydos, Matt Jones, J.B. Holmes, Alex Cejka and Bryce Molder.
But he’s right there heading to Monterey Peninsula on Saturday, which has proven to be the easiest of the three courses on the rotation. And not surprisingly, Duval was all the rage in so many circles.
Some asked him if it felt like 1999 the way the gallery so warmly received him. That’s when Duval was No. 2 in the world, even though everyone knew he was playing the best golf. He would rise to No. 1 a month later, contend regularly in majors, eventually win the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
Duval also raised hopes of a revival last summer, when he was No. 882 in the world and had a chance to win the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black until a late bogey. He tied for second, two shots behind Lucas Glover.
Alas, one tournament – even a major – is no measure. Len Mattiace once finished second in a major, too.
That’s what makes Saturday so interesting.
Along with a leaderboard as crowded as Penn Station on Friday afternoon – Phil Mickelson is only three shots behind – Duval has a chance to put together three good rounds and give himself a chance to win.
Being in the hunt also means trying to explain where his game has been, and where it’s going, and that’s never easy.
“I feel like I’m playing well,” he said, occasionally rubbing his forehead. “You know, it’s difficult for a player – or for me, at least – to sit here and explain it over and over again. I feel like I’ve been playing well. I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything out of it for a long time.”
That U.S. Open last summer?
“I was the least surprised at the U.S. Open, except for maybe my family,” he said.
But that was the last dose of good news for the year, and Duval not only finished out of the top 125 to keep his card (No. 130), he tried to go through Q-school and didn’t make it. He left the Bob Hope Classic after missing the cut – “I chipped it like I had been in the snow for six weeks, which I had been,” he said – feeling as though he was hitting the ball well enough to finish in the top 10 on the money list if he kept that up for the rest of the year.
Two weeks later, he opened with a 68 at Riviera and followed with rounds of 75-76.
It can be a maddening game, for sure, and Duval has managed to keep his sanity. He began his week at Spyglass Hill, where even in the best of times he could barely break par. He poured in six birdies and shot a 67 to open the tournament.
“Big things are coming,” he said in a text message.
He still believes, even if the results have not been there for longer than he cares to remember. At times, he looks like he can contend anywhere. Then comes one bad hole, or a stretch of them, or one bad round, and it’s like starting over.
The affection remains from the gallery, some of that sympathy for how far he has fallen, some of that hope for what he can become.
In the era of Tiger Woods, only two players have sustained such dominance for an entire year or two – Duval and Vijay Singh.
Duval is now getting by on sponsor exemptions at some spots, past performance at others. He appreciates each exemption, no longer takes them for granted and realizes how far this week can go toward getting more.
“I have the opportunity right now to convince them on the golf course,” he said, “so it’s really up to me.”
The celebrities will be at Pebble Beach on Saturday. Duval will be at Monterey Peninsula, facing a significant round in a slow climb back to where he wants to be, and thinks he should be.