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David Duval still on the comeback trail

David Duval got started on the next tournament in his latest comeback at one of his favorite restaurants.

Waffle House.

“I had eggs, chicken, toast, grits and a double order of hash browns,” Duval said, breaking into a smile that has seemed so hard to muster through much of his golfing career. “Gotta have the double order of hash browns.”

Now, if only Duval could order up the shots that once made him the world’s No. 1 player.

It’s been seven years since he was that aloof, buffed-up golfer in the dark, wraparound sunglasses, striking fear into lesser players and looking every bit like this generation’s most worthy challenger to Tiger Woods.

But, instead of playing the Tom Watson role to Woods’ Jack Nicklaus, Duval became the guy who would have trouble competing at Q-school. He still has his PGA Tour card, but that has more to do with personal hardship than anything he’s done lately on the course.

Duval played in only seven tournaments in 2007, stepping aside to be with his wife during a difficult pregnancy. He’s played eight times this year on a “family crisis” waiver, but has yet to make a cut. Yep, the guy who’s won nearly $17 million in his career has yet to earn a single dollar in 2008.

He’s also heavier than he was in his prime, carrying a noticeable bulge around his midsection. He is listed at 180 pounds, but he’s probably closer to 200 and says he needs to lose about 20 pounds. But Duval insists he’s happy with his life and confident he can turn things around.

“I’m a lot closer to playing great golf than my scores indicate,” said Duval, whose averaging nearly 75 strokes per round and doesn’t rank any higher than 106th in the myriad of categories kept by the PGA Tour. “When I’m swinging well, nobody hits the golf ball any better than I do.”

He was once the world’s top-ranked player, supplanting Woods in the standings. He became the first golfer ever to shoot 59 in the final round of a tournament, closing with an eagle on the 18th hole of the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. He has won 13 tournaments on the PGA Tour and 19 around the world, the last of them seemingly the one that would propel his career to even greater heights.

Instead, after winning the 2001 British Open, Duval went into a free fall. He slumped to 80th on the money list in 2002 and 211th the following year. He was more likely to shoot 80 as he was to break par, as likely to hit someone in the gallery as he was the fairway.

“It’s a lot more fun when you’re shooting 66 every day,” he conceded Wednesday, before heading off to play in the pro-am for this week’s AT&T Classic in suburban Atlanta.

Along the way, Duval found clarity in his personal life—marrying, becoming a father, insisting he had discovered a greater purpose than hitting a golf ball. Some even wondered if family bliss ruined his career, taking away that competitive edge he once held over everyone not named Tiger.

Duval scoffs at those who say you can’t be a loving husband and dad—and successful golfer.

“Jack Nicklaus did it pretty well,” he said. “If anything, I would think it would be the other way. You would be so hyper-focused, you’d get that much more out of your effort.”

While he doesn’t like looking back, Duval points to back problems as the main culprit in his decline. He began to swing so his back wouldn’t hurt, and he soon had no idea where the ball was going.

“When I was swinging great, I hit the golf ball dead straight,” he said. “I faced a problem that thousands and thousands of golfers have faced. I’d get on the tee and I wouldn’t know where to aim because I didn’t know if I was going to hit it right or left or straight. It almost becomes a cliche, but it’s very difficult to play this game, especially professionally, if you can’t eliminate half the golf course.”

Duval’s fellow players are sympathetic to his plight, but know there’s more to the man that the numbers he writes on his card. Once viewed as caustic and unapproachable, he’s now friendlier to those around him—the media included— and draws plenty of cheers from the hackers in the gallery, who can certainly relate to what he’s going through.

“I don’t think David wants my empathy, to be honest with you,” Paul Goydos said. “He’s a good man. He’s well-read. He’s smart. I think he’s as happy as he’s ever been in his life with his family situation. Sometimes, I think we overrate the importance of hitting a little white ball around a big grass field.”

Then, Goydos added, “I shouldn’t say this because it’s not my place, but if you asked David if he was happier when he was No. 1 in the world or today, I think you’d be surprised by the answer.”

Duval figures he can still have it all: happiness at home and on the course. For starters, he admittedly needs to get in better shape, having cut back on his once-brutal workout regime because he was tired of his body hurting so much.

“Frankly,” he said, “I’m in the same boat right now with a lot of people, where I need to lose a few pounds and get healthier.”

He’s convinced that his swing isn’t that far off. The main thing holding him back at this point is a lack of confidence.

Not surprisingly, Duval’s psyche is still a bit fragile. In his prime, he figured those few errant shots he hit were an anomaly, and quickly cast them aside. Now, he’s prone to still be thinking about a bad swing when he lines up to take the next one.

“I’m motivated to do it. I have the desire to do it,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep going.”

With that, Duval headed for the course, his trademark sunglasses perched on the back of his head while he tried to look forward.


May 15, 2008

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