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Woods helping Duval on the comeback trail

Five years ago at the PGA Championship, they were No. 1 and No. 2 in the world.

It was the last time Tiger Woods was chasing anyone in the world rankings.

On Tuesday, he was guiding David Duval around the front nine at Whistling Straits during an early morning practice round at the PGA Championship. Woods had his left hand around Duval's shoulder, and with his right hand pointed the grip of his driver in the direction of the fourth fairway, located somewhere beyond a million bunkers.

Duval took a big cut and no one flinched. The ball soared into the gray skies down the right side of the 493-yard hole, and the wind gently brought it back to the short grass.

``Fairway,'' Woods said as if he was giving a progress report.

It was the first time they have played together since the first two rounds of the Nissan Open last year at Riviera, back when Duval's demise was only a rumor.

``As far as the way he's playing, I think he's on the right track,'' Woods said. ``He's hitting some golf shots now that are solid, they are controlled. And the cool thing about him, you could see the excitement level is back.

``He will get back,'' Woods said. ``There's no doubt about it.''

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt Duval would return to the level that brought him 13 victories, including The Players Championship in 1999 that took him to No. 1 in the world, and a British Open title in 2001 that cemented his status as one of the best in the game.

Not many could have imagined that silver claret jug would be the last of his PGA Tour victories.

Five years after Duval was No. 1 in the world going into the '99 PGA, he has plunged to No. 512.

He is newly married, happier than ever and realizes there is much more to life than chasing around a little white golf ball, all the more reason to believe his best days on the golf course are behind him.

And then there was Shinnecock Hills.

Duval ended his seven-month break from the PGA Tour at the toughest test in golf, but he looked like a ceremonial golfer at the U.S. Open. He shot rounds of 83-82 and smiled his way around the course, the kind of golf expected out of 75-year-old Arnold Palmer, not a 32-year-old entering the prime of his career.

``I enjoyed being out there,'' he said at Shinnecock. ``All in all, I would call it an enormous victory.''

But there was something different about Duval on Tuesday, his first trip around Whistling Straits. His tee shots were long and relatively straight. The applause he heard was not from fans just happy to see him, but fans impressed by shots that stopped so close to the pin.

``I feel great,'' Duval said after his round. ``I'm going to play well.''

Just as importantly, Duval is going to play more often.

He plans to play in the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston on Labor Day weekend, and probably the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey the following week. Duval wants to play three more times the rest of the season, then resume a full schedule next year and see where it leads him.

``As I stand right now, I think I can win tournaments,'' Duval said.

The practice round with Woods and Mark O'Meara was no accident. Duval could not recall the last time he practiced with Woods, joking that ``I haven't played any practice rounds.''

He and Woods have been good friends since their rivalry reached a peak five years ago. He stays at O'Meara's house whenever he plays at Disney.

But the common friend in their group Tuesday was Hank Haney, the swing coach for O'Meara who also has been working with Woods the last several months.

Duval is his latest client.

At O'Meara's recommendation, Duval first met with Haney two weeks ago in Texas. The timing is intriguing, especially since Haney has a cover story in latest issue of Golf Digest magazine called, ``How I Cured My Driver Yips.''

``I believe driver yips -- not fatigue, stress or some mechanical swing problem -- have sabotaged the careers of David Duval, Seve Ballesteros and Ian Baker-Finch,'' Haney writes.

Now, Haney is trying to fix one of them.

Duval already has changed to a weaker grip, and is starting to see the results. The biggest problem he has is learning how far he can expect each club to go, because an effort to gain more control has cost him some of the pop in his irons.

Duval shot a 66 at Vaquero, Haney's home course outside Dallas, a few weeks ago with not many trips into the high grass. Haney believes Duval can recover enough of his game to be a regular winner again, and not the second coming of another British Open champion -- Baker-Finch.

``I'm just seeing if I can get it headed in the right direction,'' Haney said. ``It's like there are two doors in your brain, and you're opening the wrong door. But it's in there.''

Where it leads when the right door is opened is anyone's guess, but Duval is eager to find out.

That's the first step.

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