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Duval's play with Special Olympic athletes

David Duval could not stop smiling as he stood on the 18th green Tuesday afternoon with a silver trophy in his hands, a scene not much different from three years ago when he was on top of his game and won the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

This was only an exhibition at Timuquana Country Club.

In some respects, it was more fulfilling than winning a major.

"Without question, the No. 1 round of the year," Duval said.

He and his father, Champions Tour player Bob Duval, played an 18-hole match with Special Olympics athletes Kevin Erickson of Wisconsin and Oliver Doherty of Ireland as their partners.

The made-for-TV match, produced by Emmy Award winner Ken Murrah, is called "A Tee Time Like No Other" and will be televised by CBS Sports on New Year's Day, with Jim Nantz hosting the show.

The outcome wasn't important, although everyone played hard.

Erickson, a 21-year-old who had a brain tumor as an infant and cancer in his sinuses three years ago, holed 6-foot putts on the final three holes -- one of them for birdie -- to give him and David Duval a 4-and-3 victory.

Doherty, born with brain damage after his mother was killed in a car accident, is 28 and built like a bouncer. His opening tee shot was only 10 yards short of the former British Open champion.

There were a few laughs along the way.

Erickson split the middle of the first fairway with a slight draw, while Duval hit a slice into the trees.

"At least one of us is in the fairway," Erickson told him, his speech deliberate but distinct. He was only trying to make conversation, but Duval -- who has struggled to find the short grass -- went along.

"Fairways are overrated," Duval deadpanned in return.

The match ended on the 15th hole. Erickson and Doherty hit tee shots on the par-3 16th with $1 million if either made a hole-in-one. Then, they headed to the 18th green for the closing ceremony, and everyone got a silver plate.

Duval got a bonus -- perspective.

"As frustrating and maddening as my struggles have been, this makes you realize how small they are," Duval said. "I've always believed that people's burden are what they can manage. I've always felt I was a strong guy. But I'm not as strong as these two men."

Duval, the No. 1 player in golf for much of the summer in 1999, is mired in a mystifying slump. He only returned to golf at the U.S. Open this year and made the cut in three of his nine tournaments.

As a young boy, he donated bone marrow in an effort to save his brother's life from leukemia. After his brother died, Duval spent countless hours on the range at Timuquana, where his father was the head pro. Duval does not see that as an escape, saying it was too long ago for him to remember.

But it was hard to ignore some similarities with his partner.

Erickson, who won the U.S. Golf National Invitational in Florida last year, was born with a tumor and had one-third of his brain removed by the time he was 4 months old, the portion that affects speech and motor skills.

His grandmother, Rita Houston, one day sent him into the back yard with a wedge, golf balls and her laundry basket and told Erickson to see how many he could land in the basket.

"He stood out there for three hours," she said.

Erickson made his high school golf team, but suffered a setback when he was diagnosed with cancer in his sinuses at 18. She believes golf kept his spirits up, and helped develop anew his muscular coordination.

"Golf is helping him get through life," Mrs. Houston said. "He doesn't complain. He doesn't have a great personality, but he's not a complainer. He accepts everything. He has to."

The match was arranged by the Special Olympics, which wanted to feature some of their finest athletes. Erickson plays off a 12 handicap and rates Duval among his favorite players. He likes Duval for his quiet demeanor and ability that got him to No. 1 in the world.

"He doesn't talk any more than I do," Erickson told his grandmother when he found out he was playing with Duval.

Doherty's story is equally amazing.

His mother was in a vegetative state after the accident, and it is believed that the brain damage was caused by forceps during the delivery. Doherty was sent to an orphanage, where he was adopted despite his parents being told of partial paralysis on the left side and prognosis that left little hope for an active life.

Jim Doherty, a firefighter who worked on the nine-hole Buncrana Golf Club in northwest Ireland, put a ball in his son's left hand and softly squeezed it shut, a process he repeated until the boy was strong to hold onto the ball. Before long, Doherty was holding a golf club, then winning club championships. He plays off a 5 handicap.

Last year, he won the Special Olympics World Summer Games with a 78 at fabled Portmarnock to win by 20 shots.

"What an honor," Doherty said quietly after the match was over.

After the ceremony, the Duvals and their partners exchanged gifts and posed for pictures. Duval signed a dozen or so Special Olympics flags, then took two flags for himself and asked Erickson and Doherty to sign them.

Duval also gave Erickson his caddie bib with a message on the back.

"Kevin, thanks for including me in a great day."

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