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David Duval falls further and further

David Duval tapped in his 80th stroke of the day and took the long walk toward the Oak Hill Country Club locker room. When he got there, he found a sepulcher -- attendants were holding flashlights and candles, since the power was off.

He sat in the dark. These days he plays in the dark, his drives veering into the rough left and right, into places that aren't acceptable on this particular golf course. Duval beat 13 players and was beaten by 12 club pros in the first round of the PGA Championship. There was a tunnel, but no light.

"I've grooved some bad habits," Duval said. "It's happened because of injuries. How often did I used to hit it left? Maybe twice a year. But I've been working on my game as hard as I ever have, I guess. Have the practice sessions been encouraging? Sometimes. Lately, yes."

They say that golfers can feel the ingredients jelling before anybody sees the cake, and Duval took comfort in several good drives Thursday. The numbers, however, did not indicate the `01 British Open champion and the former No. 1 player in the world has begun to put the brakes on an incomprehensible plunge.

Duval had three double-bogeys and no birdies, and he hit five fairways of 14.

His gallery applauded numbly for the most part and dwindled to a handful by the time Duval, Fred Couples and Lee Janzen finished. Three kids in the first row of the bleachers by the 15th green jeered when a red number "2" went up beside Duval's name.

"No way!" one said. "That's gotta be the wrong color." The mistake was corrected and the kids, who were clearly of drinking age, approved; then Duval bogeyed the hole out of a bunker.

"I shudder to think what's going to be written about me tomorrow," Duval said.

Numbers can cut deeper than words.

Duval has made four cuts in 18 starts and has not finished higher than 28th. His stroke average is 74.4. He is 194th in driving accuracy, 195th in greens in regulation and, most surprisingly, 118th in driving distance.

He began the year with a 65 at the Bob Hope Classic. His next round was a 78. He shot 62 at the Tour event in Avenel, Md. He had no other round under 73 at that tournament.

His seven rounds in major tournaments this year are 79-83-78-72-83-78-80. Overall he has had two 80s and three 83s.

It is possible to have followed Duval long enough to watch him shoot in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. He shot a 59 on Sunday at the Bob Hope in `99. It is somewhat harder to remember just how good he was, when he won four tournaments in both `98 and `99 and when he spent 15 weeks on top of the world rankings.

Even then, Duval wasn't particularly high on the journalistic profession, and he is no more enthralled with the golf technicians who claim to have isolated his fatal flaws. One national magazine invited six instructors to critique Duval's swing, frame by frame.

"I didn't see it, and I don't care what they said, but I heard about it," Duval said. "They said six different things. To me, that shows their incompetence. When I was playing well, people talked about what a good swing I had, how simple it was."

Now Tom Watson is freely criticizing Duval's strong grip, which brought a wordless smile from Duval.

"Other than Tiger, who's the model, tell me what great player had a swing that everybody thought was classic," Duval said. "Name one. Jack Nicklaus had the flying elbow, Arnold Palmer lashed at the ball, Lee Trevino hockey-sticked it, Watson went straight up and down with a reverse C. But all of them repeated what they did and made it work for them."

With that, Duval stood up -- or tried to -- to show the proper setup position. It took some effort.

"My back's not really hurt, it's just sore and tired right now," he said. "But I've had back problems. I've had shoulder problems. I hurt both wrists."

He also had a long duel with vertigo, which, he now admits, made him feel "foggy."

"The problem is that I'm not standing up to the ball like I used to," he said. "I went to see Jack Lumpkin (a renowned teacher based in Sea Island, Ga., who has counseled Davis Love III), and he calls it `standing beside the ball.' I got into a thing where I'm standing behind it, and that causes me to tilt my shoulders. And I got into doing that because of injuries. But Jack was good because he believes in the way I play."

Duval also sees David Leadbetter and his dad, Bob, and has also asked Love and Mark O'Meara for opinions. "Different sets of eyes," he said. "If they all say the same thing, then maybe you're closer to finding an answer.

"I know that nobody hit the ball better than I did in `97, `98 and `99," he said softly. "And I did it with the same swing that everyone criticizes now."

But then Duval never has welcomed strange noses against the window of his life, especially when they assume facts not in evidence -- or assume Duval is a Xerox of the one-dimensional men around him.

"So I shot 80. So what?" he said. "Why should this affect my life? I could scream and yell and throw clubs like some people do, and like some people want me to do, but I'm not that way. It's just golf. I feel damn lucky. I've got a great life. Nobody wants to believe that. I'm not playing good golf right now, but it doesn't define my life."

He walked back out into the light. This morning Duval will try it again, try to dodge the rough and catch a fourscore of golfers who, just yesterday, couldn't hold a candle to him.

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