British Open PreviewJuly 5, 2010

The Journey

Nine years after his British Open victory at Lytham, David Duval possesses a healthy perspective, a not entirely healthy back and a desire to compete again

A wise man once said about golf: "Patience is a part of the game, and you can't just have patience through the course of a round; you have to have patience through the course of a year and a career."

Seated with his ankle on his knee in the clubhouse at Colonial CC in Fort Worth, David Duval listened intently to those words as they were read to him. They sounded familiar, and he remained quiet for a few seconds before a grin crept onto his tanned face.

"That's me."

He was right, of course. Duval made that observation in 1998 after the third round of the NEC World Series of Golf in Akron, Ohio, an event he would win by two strokes over Phil Mickelson. Duval was 26 then, and his star was rising as he captured four PGA Tour titles and the Vardon Trophy with a 69.13 adjusted stroke average. A year later he ascended to the top of the World Ranking, exhibiting killer instinct and supreme confidence to win four times -- including the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic with a closing 59­ -- prior to the Masters, an early-season outburst not seen since Johnny Miller in 1974.

Duval couldn't have known then how much he would put his words to the test. But a rare kind of patience has been required since his famous crash from the summit -- since he blew out his back, his wrist, his shoulder and, to a degree, his psyche; since he plummeted to 882nd in the world; since he suffered through a horrendous stretch when he made just eight of 49 cuts in a three-year span, including a 1-for-20 calamity in 2005; since he lost what his longtime mentor and friend Puggy Blackmon called a "­RoboCop tunnel vision and self-assurance;" and since he contracted the driving yips, which is usually a fatal affliction for a professional golfer.

After summoning all the shots necessary to win the 2001 British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes with a last-ditch surge of inspiration, Duval became engulfed in an injury-plagued tailspin from which he has yet to emerge fully, at least as it pertains to adding to his 13 PGA Tour titles. But in his mind Duval already is back -- and every golfer knows that's the real battleground.

"When you're in the abyss, only you can fix yourself," says veteran Scott Verplank, who endured his own corroded period of struggle in the early 1990s as he battled health problems. "I told David he'd have to figure it out on his own, but when he did, he'd know it."

When Duval returns to the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland for the 139th Open Championship, he arrives not as the player who foraged the depths of frustration, anguish and doubt, but as a man convinced he has emerged from the other side capable and ready to win again. After all, only someone with nowhere to go can afford to have endless patience.

"Here's the difficulty with it," Duval, now 38 and 164th on the World Ranking, begins in that cerebral manner that is every bit as much a part of his identity as wrap-around sunglasses. "I know what I'm on the verge of doing. I've been amazingly patient and hardworking for years now. But now there's a little bit of, 'all right, enough's enough.' I have worked my tail off. I have swallowed my pride and my breath and my anger and emotions. I've lived with the frustrations and doubts and come out and put things back together. I'm trending in the right direction. But I'm tired of getting close. It's time I started winning again. "I know the player I was," he adds. "And I'm close to being that kind of player again. I know it because I've been there."

According to Duval, the highlight of his career thus far has been his two Ryder Cup appearances, particularly the '99 edition when he contributed to a furious American singles rally at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

But it's not his best golf memory.

"Susie's probably going to get mad at me for this," Duval, referring to his wife, says with an easy southern drawl that six years living in Denver hasn't erased. "We're on the golf course at home, and I tried to get her to do a little something different with her swing. She tried it, and she said to me, 'That didn't feel right. You don't know what you're talking about.' That was just great."

Duval met the former Susie Persichitte during the 2003 International in Denver, and it's easy to summarize how thoroughly Duval was smitten by his decision to fly back from his native Jacksonville three weeks later for their first date. They were married in less than a year, and because she had three children (Deano, Nick and Shalene) from a previous marriage, his life changed overnight. The couple has since added another son (Brayden) and daughter (Sienna Violet), and Duval has found the most trying aspect to being a husband and father is balancing his overwhelming reluctance to leave home with a fervent desire to show them how well he can play.

"I'm in the best place I've ever been in my life," he says. "Susie has changed my life so much. She showed me what I was missing. For me to try to explain it is not easy, but I always felt when I was on the road, before Susie and the kids, that it was kind of me against the world. Now I feel I have allies, if you will, in my golf fights."

"I've known him a long time, and I've never seen him happier," says Blackmon, who recruited Duval to play golf at Georgia Tech, where he was a four-time All-American before turning pro in 1993. "He has a great family. He's blessed with a beautiful soul mate. He's a total person now as compared to simply being driven to be a great golfer."

Duval is still driven to be a great golfer, to prove he knows what he's talking about, but not at all costs. He raised eyebrows -- and eventually caused the tour to change its rules regarding medical exemptions -- when he sat out for seven months in 2007 because Susie was going through a difficult pregnancy with Sienna Violet. He didn't care that he had used his one-time, top-25 career earnings exemption to stay on tour that year.

"There was no paralyzing minute trying to figure out what to do," he says. "It's what I wanted to do and what I needed to do."

Top players admit that it takes a certain selfishness to reach the pinnacle of the game. Could Duval be too unselfish to be great again?

"Let me say this: If I have to be selfish to be a top player, and more than likely that behavior is going to be detrimental to my marriage, then that's not behavior in which I'll engage," Duval says. "But I think it could be the opposite for me. I get to enjoy great golf with a huge group of people I love."

And he has given his family performances to enjoy. Prominent was his inspired run at last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, where he finished T-2. This year, playing out of the past champions category, Duval has made six cuts in 14 starts -- already his second most in the last six seasons -- with another T-2 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. He lacks consistency, which he can't explain, but he doesn't lack optimism. "Just getting back in contention is proof I can do it," he says.

Blackmon agrees. "I've been pretty accurate in my predictions with him," he says. "I knew what he could do in college. I knew what he could do as a pro. I see the fire in his eyes. He went to the Masters playing great and then just tried too hard and missed the cut. He knows he's close because that's when he has a tendency to try too hard."

The answers are in the dirt, right?

Days at home start early for Duval. It would not be unusual to find him in the backyard by sunup...looking for bugs. "Our little ones, it could be 6:30, and they want to go outside and find worms and ladybugs and centipedes," he says. "What could be better than that?"

It's better than beating balls, which Duval has never embraced unless there were specific issues to address. But he always has loved to play and to practice the elements of scoring, namely chipping and putting. At the nadir of his slump, in 2005, Duval was fighting a feeling he feared, something worse than wanting to quit.

He didn't hate the game. A self-admitted perfectionist, Duval hated feeling lost. "My back injury destroyed my golf swing," he says succinctly. "I always prided myself on being in control of what I was doing, controlling the ball around the golf course. When you get to the point where you don't have that control...it's a hard thing to swallow, to wrap your ego around.

"I knew I was not far away from having to make the decision if I wanted to continue to compete professionally and risk losing my desire to play at all, even for fun," he says. "One day I may address the depth of all the issues I had to deal with, but I'm not prepared right now."

Justin Leonard, a former Ryder Cup teammate, stayed with Duval in Denver during one of the last editions of the ­International, and he was struck by how well Duval handled being miserable. "You knew he was unhappy with his game, but David did a great job of not taking his play home with him," Leonard says. "There was never a quick, quiet meal when we got back. It was, 'Let's talk and have a couple of bottles of wine and enjoy the evening.' He never let the game beat him up. I think his family life has a lot to do with that."

Another factor is that Duval already beat the game once. "The peak of No. 1 I've seen," he says. "I don't feel like I have to see it again."

So what's the goal? "Well, I have to stay healthy," says Duval, whose '08 season was marred by a right knee injury he never disclosed. "Then get back to feeling I'm in total control on the golf course. With my ability and inherent knowledge of the game, if I can stay healthy, I believe I'm a top-10 or top-20 player, [capable of] winning multiple tournaments."

It was early Friday afternoon in suburban Columbus, Ohio, when Duval affixed his signature to a second straight 79 at Muirfield Village GC. He was resigned to a brief appearance at the Memorial even before he arrived. His chronically injured back had seized up prior to the second round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, and he missed the cut after a promising first-round 68.

Though he had received treatment for it at home in Denver, Duval was barely functional when he teed it up at Jack Nicklaus' popular invitational. It was a setback he had endured too many times in the last 10 years. This flare-up derailed his preparations for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, a real blow considering his Bethpage performance and near triumph in February. In the weeks leading up to the tournament he wants to win more than any other, Duval, with Blackmon's aid, had made further refinements, getting incrementally closer to the swing he learned from his father. But the changes hadn't congealed and the back wasn't fully healed when the gun went off at Pebble. Duval ended up T-70.

There was no need to ask whether or not he was disappointed; he'd already said all that was necessary weeks earlier in Ohio. After signing a few autographs and stopping for a quick chat, he slowly climbed a temporary staircase to exit the scoring area. He paused on the third step. "I do wonder what would have happened if I hadn't hurt my back, what I might have done," he said. There was a trace of curiosity in his voice, and regret, too. But mostly he sounded like a patient man who no longer wished to be so.

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__Family Matters: After an inspired run at the 2009 U.S. Open, where he finished T-2, Duval shared a moment with his son Brayden (left, J.D. Cuban). Duval credits his wife Susie (right, Sam Greenwood/Getty Images), with changing his outlook and improving his life. __