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David Duval tries to rescue a lost season

The worst part of David Duval's lost season was not the tournaments he failed to win or even those he couldn't play.

It was wondering whether he could return.

More than a month after back problems caused him to walk off the course in the first round of The International, Duval couldn't chip, putt, ride a mountain bike or even cast a line into the river behind his home in Sun Valley, Idaho.

He had plenty of time to figure out why he couldn't make a putt early in the year when two tournaments got away from him, to relive that 6-iron he hit into Rae's Creek that cost him a chance to win The Masters, and to wonder how different it might have been had he faced Tiger Woods in the British Open with a strong back.

But that's not what ate at him.

"When you're in the middle of your third week of lying on your back, you start thinking, 'When am I going to play again? Am I going to play again?' " Duval said.

The answer comes this week.

David Duval at his last outing, The Open.Allsport.

Maybe.

Duval returns to the PGA Tour for the first time in two months when he plays the Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens, Ga.

"I am very excited,'' he said. "But I'm also very nervous."

Duval began hitting balls about 10 days ago and has not had any problems. The plan for the week was to play 18 holes Tuesday for the first time since the British Open, chip and putt on Wednesday, and then try to get back into the swing of things.

"I think I'm OK,'' he said. "Now, it's just getting the endurance back.''

The last time Duval managed to play an entire round was in July, when he finally got a chance to go head-to-head with Woods in a major championship. He had little chance -- Woods had a six-stroke lead, Duval could barely bend over to stick a tee in the ground.

Still, he relished the opportunity like too few of his peers do and cut the deficit in half after nine holes. But he could not stop Woods from another record-breaking performance in a major championship.

While Woods strode across the Swilken Bridge, Duval flailed away hopelessly in the Road Hole bunker, an image that seemed to sum up his season.

For a player who was ranked No. 1 in the world just one year and one month ago, Duval has not won since the BellSouth Classic in the spring of 1999. He has played in 29 PGA Tour events (13 in 1999 and 16 this year) since then without winning

Woods has won 16 times since then, including four of the last five majors.

Woods changed his swing and his golf ball. Duval changed caddies, his clothing line, and became ultra-conscious of his health and fitness to build a body for life -- even if it didn't get through this season.

Duval said weightlifting and his injury are not related, rather it was a posture problem that caused him to compensate in other areas and eventually took its toll on his back. He wound up missing four tournaments he would have played -- one of them a major on a course suited for his game, the other a World Golf Championship event on a course where he won.

"That would not be unfair to say," Duval said.

But it won't be a lost year until the year is over. Assuming his back holds up in the Buick Challenge, he plans to play the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill, where he recorded his first PGA Tour victory, in 1997, and then made a successful title defense.

After that comes the Presidents Cup, then the Tour Championship in Atlanta. He doubts he will go to the season-ending WGC event at Valderrama because of the eight-hour flight to southern Spain.

Duval's caddie for his 11 victories, Mitch Knox, will be back on the bag at Callaway Gardens and Duval has set his expectations at their usual level --high.

"I'm not going up there just to play,'' he said. "The only thing I have is a very fresh mind, and there's a lot to be said for that."

A fresh mind, but still no victories in 18 months. Clearly, Duval has some ground to make up. Does he think he can ever get back to No. 1 in the world?

"Yeah, I do,'' he said. "Now ask the second part of the question. 'Do I care?' No. It's not my aim. It never was my goal to be ranked No. 1. All I want is to play great golf and win golf tournaments."

Woods has no rival in the game, but Duval has come the closest. While he hasn't won a major, his stretch of 11 victories in 34 events from late 1997 through early 1999 was the best since Nick Price won 12 times (including three majors) in 42 starts from late 1992 to late 1994 -- until Woods came along with a streak that rivals Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.

But Duval wondered what would happen if he could crank it up again, win several more tournaments and even a couple of majors. Assuming his health is back, and his game is not far behind, at least he has a chance to find out.

 

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