By Chip Brown
I. SLOWLY AND ALL AT ONCE
There aren’t many people in his galleries anymore, and fewer still along the ropes who know what his game was like when he was splitting fairways, the cocky master of laser-guided irons and magic on the greens. That was a lifetime ago, he often says, as if the wised-up mortal man of 38 with five kids had nothing to do with that numbed prodigy of a dozen years ago whose obsession with controlling the flight of a golf ball – for all the joy it offered and the fortune it brought – also seemed freighted with what was painfully beyond his power to control outside the ropes.
"David, David! Mr. Duval! Over here! Please!"
Autograph hounds were brandishing visors and balls and pictures of him in his prime as he moved toward the first tee, where four nervous amateurs awaited the start of their Pro-Am round at the Honda Classic. It was the first week of March; a cold wind was rattling the palms on the Champion course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Duval, in a blue shell and black trousers, stopped at the rope line and scribbled his name on some old magazine covers bearing images of the person he used to be.
"Good luck, David!" a man shouted as the Pro-Am party set off.
If the thin crowd that tagged along didn’t know his game, they did know the outline of his story: his rapid emergence on the PGA Tour, a fixture in the mix on Sundays, the player who might have won the Masters four years in a row but for the sort of breaks that make you appreciate golf’s cruelty. When Duval had a good round going, he wasn’t afraid to try for a great one. In one incandescent period from the end of 1997 to early 1999, he won 11 of 34 tournaments, including a come-from-behind victory at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, where he eagled the last hole for a total score of 59 and one of the most sublime rounds ever carded in the history of the game.
"David Duval is On Fire" read the cover of the April 12, 1999, Sports Illustrated, showing the new star in his wraparound sunglasses, blowing the smoke off a sizzling midiron. By then the world rankings had made official what had been obvious for months: It was no longer Tiger Woods who was the number one player in the world. It was Duval, the four-time All-American from Georgia Tech with the hidden eyes and the fluid, homegrown swing that left him peering out over his right shoulder, his back in a twist, hands hoisted up around the side of his head as if he were trying to open a locket at the nape of his neck.
As much as Duval relished being the best, he wasn’t born for the showmanship of being number one. He didn’t smile easily like Tiger, didn’t play to crowds with uppercuts and primal screams. His three fist pumps and a hand smack after the immortal 59 were the most extravagant display of emotion most fans had ever seen from him.
He was as composed in adversity as in triumph. His signature Oakley shades, worn to correct astigmatism and protect his sensitive eyes, seemed symbolic of a desire to keep the world at bay, a reluctance to be seen. His shyness and social anxiety came across as callow self-absorption or a lack of empathy. He was suspicious of people who wanted his opinion just because he had a one beside his name. Unlike Woods, who in interviews had perfected the art of talking without saying anything, Duval spoke his mind, sometimes with a brutal lack of tact. He was candid and cerebral one moment, prickly and aloof the next.
He was the sort of golfer it was easier to admire than to love. He didn’t want your heart. Few fans mourned when his approach shot found the bunker on the Road Hole at St. Andrews in 2000 and he foundered in sand, taking four shots to get out and effectively ceding the Open Championship to Woods, the people’s choice. Duval won only once that year, and only once on the Tour the next year, capturing the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. That November in 2001, on his 30th birthday, he won the Dunlop Phoenix championship on the Japan tour.
And that was it.
Slowly and all at once, the way people lose fortunes or love, he lost his game.
II. BOGEY! NO!
David Duval’s shaved Maltese sprang through the front doorway like a hyperprotective caddy.
"Bogey! No! Down!" said Duval.
Bogey? Not something more auspicious, like Eagle or Ace?
"Got and named while I was away," he said dryly, with a hint of a smile. Sleeping out back by the swing set and the vegetable garden and a practice green of synthetic turf was Oakley, a portly golden retriever named after the company whose sunglasses Duval still wears, even though his endorsement deal expired four years ago.
It was a busy midweek morning at the Duval family’s sprawling stone-and-glass house in Cherry Hills Village, an affluent community south of downtown Denver. Duval’s stepkids, Deano, Nick, and Shalene, and his nearly five-year-old son, Brady, were out of the house, but his wife, Susie, was arranging flowers in the kitchen. Their two-year-old daughter, Sienna, was helping the nanny whip up a batch of cookies.
"I don’t understand why I’m considered such a tortured soul," Duval said as we sat down in his book-lined study. He was friendly, but not unguarded. Along one wall were five golf bags and a cluster of trophies displayed so unostentatiously that it was a good hour before I realized golf’s hallowed Claret Jug was among them.
However puzzling to Duval himself, the tortured-soul motif is a staple of stories about him for a number of reasons, notably the childhood trauma that golf helped him forget. But the motif also reflects preconceptions people have about how a man ought to feel after falling from the pinnacle of his profession.
It’s hard to think of an elite athlete in any sport who has tumbled as far as David Duval. For most of the past decade, he has been wandering in the wilderness, beating the bushes of the PGA Tour for the form he once had, or not playing at all. He has been plagued by a series of injuries to his back, his neck, his wrist. The early phase of his golf-course troubles coincided with romantic straits when a longtime engagement fell apart. For several months he took an antidepressant. At the Ford Championship in 2003, he was diagnosed with positional vertigo.
All the while, fans and writers posed the same question over and over again: "What’s wrong with David Duval?" At one low point, he said to Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist whom Duval once hired for advice and coaching, "I just wish I could be anonymous again."
His woes began, he said, when a sprained fifth lumbar vertebra threw his back out in early 2000. His swing got out of whack as he tried to compensate for the injury. The great fairway splitter would stand on the tee not knowing whether his ball was going left or right. He consulted swing gurus, who suggested he change his stance or modify what’s known in golf as his "strong" grip. He watched old videotapes of himself made by his coach at Georgia Tech. Sometimes his back was so tight he could do nothing but lie down on the floor. His Tour peers, who used to fear his game, looked at him with pity. When the gauntlet of the golf course was too frustrating, he escaped on his snowboard in Sun Valley, where he has a second home.
Valiante recalled a moment that seemed like the nadir of Duval’s decade. It was a Saturday in May during the 2003 Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio. Duval played well enough Thursday and Friday to make the cut, and he was in the middle of a good round when cold rain halted play. Tournament officials did not call the players back to the clubhouse, and Duval stood out on the course for 46 minutes while his back tightened up. When play resumed at noon, he double-bogeyed and shot himself out of contention with a six-over-par 78. To Valiante the sight of him standing out in the rain said it all: David couldn’t catch a break. It was as if the universe were bent on making him miserable.
By 2004 Duval had fallen to 434 in the world rankings. Of the 20 tournaments he entered in 2005, he made the cut in one, earning all of $7,630. He was winless in 2006; winless in 2007, playing on a medical exemption; and winless in 2008 and 2009, playing on the last of his lifetime earnings exemptions. This year, lacking a Tour card, he has been relying on the kindness of sponsors to get into fields.
"It gave me a lot of anger initially," he told me, speaking of his injuries and his struggles with the game. "I felt like I got cheated. I could always feel a golf shot in my hands – it’s an innate thing – and I could feel it going away. It’s easy for me, looking back, to recognize what was happening, but I didn’t see it at the time."
Maybe even more significant than physical issues or love trouble was a kind of spiritual disenchantment. The game that Duval had played with a therapeutic ferocity since he was 12 years old began to lose its meaning. Where he had expected elation and fulfillment after winning his first major at the Open Championship in 2001, he instead found an empty, isolated feeling and the sense that his victory was almost fraudulent.
"When you work so hard," he recalled, "and have had so many near misses and then win, and you didn’t play that well, it’s like, ‘Are you kidding? Are you really gonna do this to me?’ It’s not like I played bad, but of the tournaments I won, that’s the one I played the worst in."
At his crowning moment, it dawned on him that golf was just a game. And, of course, only someone for whom golf was more than a game could be disillusioned to discover otherwise.
III. ADDING IT ALL UP
It’s hard to reflect on the seminal tragedy of David Duval’s boyhood and not think that however much golf was the road to joy in his young life, it was also the road out from grief and unwarranted guilt; that when he was hammering out a hard, nothing-can-hurt-me identity in the sanctuary of the practice range, he was also burying an old one, his mastery of a golf ball compensating for the sadness and confusion of a family fractured by the sudden death of a child.
Duval grew up in the Old Ortega neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida, the middle kid – three years younger than his brother, Brent, and five years older than his sister, Deirdre. His mother, Diane Poole Duval, worked as a secretary. His father, Bob Duval, once a talented junior golfer (and later a winner on the Champions Tour), supported the family as the head pro at nearby Timuquana Country Club.
Brent and David went to Catholic mass together on Sundays, and then they would head out on skateboards or bikes and be gone all day. They fished, they flew kites; they hunted frogs and snakes and turtles. Both boys loved sports, especially baseball. With their father’s tutelage and encouragement, they took up golf with cut-down clubs. Brent showed a talent for the game, playing in father-son tournaments.
But in the fall of 1980, 12-year-old Brent began to look pale and to complain of fatigue. His parents thought he had a stubborn flu. During the Christmas break, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a lethal disease in which bone marrow stops making the stem cells that generate infection-fighting blood cells. His only hope was a bone-marrow transplant from a compatible donor – likely David.
Bob, Diane, and the boys drove 18 hours to the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. The first two biopsies of David’s marrow, which would ascertain its compatibility, were performed without anesthetic. David bore up bravely until the augur bit the bone, and then he screamed and writhed as his father and a nurse held him down. When the needle was drawn, the doctor turned to the other hip. David was given general anesthesia for the four subsequent punctures. He flew home with his maternal grandfather while Brent underwent radiation in preparation for the marrow transplant.
For a few weeks, it looked like the family had gotten a miracle. Brent’s color and energy came back. The doctors said he was progressing well enough for his parents to make plans to take him home. Then fever. Vomiting. Further tests: Brent’s body was rejecting David’s tissue. There was nothing the doctors could do; nothing for Bob and Diane to do but wait by their son’s side for the end to come. They brought David back to Cleveland to say goodbye. At the sight of the bald, wasted boy lying in a welter of tubes, David cried, "That’s not Brent! That’s not my brother!" and fled from the room.
On May 17, 1981 – less than five months after the disease was discovered – Brent died.
His Little League teammates carried his coffin at the funeral in Jacksonville. David endured stoically until a few weeks later, when, blaming himself for the failed marrow transplant, he burst into sobs and cried out, "I killed him! I killed him!" Diane kept a large picture of Brent in the front hall, spoke about him in the present tense, and tried to preserve his room as it had been the day he left. She fell away from the Catholic church and into alcoholism. Bob Duval also looked for solace in a bottle, and about a year later, in a decision that confounded his surviving son, left the home. He returned after about a year, then left for good and eventually remarried. When Diane died in July 2007, at 60 years old, she was buried beside the child she never stopped mourning.
Two years after Brent’s death, when David was 11, he threw himself into golf, reporting to the range at his father’s club every day after school. He could stand for hours in a bunker practicing trap shots. His father gave him tips about his shoulder turn and takeaway, passing along wisdom from David’s club-pro grandfather, Henry "Hap" Duval. "Play what’s in front of you, David. Your score is just a succession of numbers. Don’t add them up until the end. Don’t dwell on the past." Advice that kept the boy’s focus trained on the present and taught him an emotional discipline that was likely to have been as useful to David the bereaved brother as it was to David the gifted junior golfer.
With his sights set on the PGA Tour, Duval honed his game: untold hours on the range, hitting under trees, over trees, between trees; untold hours shaping irons, rehearsing chips; untold hours in the pro shop, practicing with putters. In 1989, in his senior year at the Episcopal High School of Jacksonville, he came in second in the state championship. Later that summer he would win the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
Is it any wonder he embraced a sport that, for all its lore and record-keeping, in competition has no use for the past – whose practitioners aim to dwell in a perpetual present, ideally so absorbed they don’t know the score until they add the numbers up at the end?
Adding it all up – that was the tricky part for Duval. Over the years he’s been asked often about the impact of his brother’s death and his parents’ divorce. He is not a man to delve into his own history, and he’s bemused that family, friends, coaches, and journalists suppose they understand something about him that he does not.
"I’m sure psychologists would love to study me," Duval said to me with a knowing laugh. "I don’t analyze myself. My childhood is just what I dealt with. Not everybody loses a sibling, but a lot do. Not everybody goes through a divorce, but half do. My experiences are not that dissimilar from a lot of other people’s. I don’t consciously feel like I have emotional scars."
"Do you think the past shaped you?" I asked.
"Who knows? What’s the purpose of revisiting it? I’m sure it shaped me, but I’m not sure how."
Over the years the man who fell as low as 1,054 in the world rankings endeared himself to golf fans in a way he never had when he was number one. When Duval began to play better, showing flashes of his old form with an occasional brilliant round, he tantalized the golf world with the idea of a Hollywood ending – never more so than last year. The 2009 U.S. Open will be remembered not for the steely play of eventual champion Lucas Glover, but for the resurrection of David Duval, who arrived at golf’s toughest test ranked 882 in the world and nearly won.
In some ways that performance can be traced back to an epiphany eight years ago at the 2002 Phoenix Open. Duval was 31, mired in his slump and not feeling good about himself. He was unhappily engaged to a woman he’d been dating since 1993. "I didn’t think I had much to offer," he said. And then into his head swam a radical idea: I’m allowed to be happy. He broke off the relationship. After a late-night conversation in his room with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, whom he’d known since he was a teenager, Duval withdrew from the tournament and went home to Jacksonville.
A year and a half later, in August of 2003, Duval was competing in the International, a now defunct tournament 15 miles south of Denver. His monastic habit was to play his round at the club, eat at the club, and retire to his room at the club with a book. Gio Valiante suggested they drive into the city for dinner.
They ended up at a popular south Denver watering hole called the Cherry Creek Grill. Duval wasn’t looking for a girlfriend at the time, but he was struck by a woman standing with two friends at the bar. He was too timid to approach her, but Valiante, as one might expect of the author of a book called Fearless Golf, was not. Introductions were made. Duval managed a few minutes of conversation with Susie Persichitte, an interior designer with three kids from a previous marriage.
"You scooted!" he says to her now when she comes into the study to ask if we want anything to drink.
She rolls her eyes. "I wasn’t there half an hour, and you said, ‘Can you have dinner?’"
Seven months later they were married.
Family life has so enthralled Duval that he doesn’t like leaving to play golf. But family life has also given him a new incentive to work on his game: He wants to show his wife and kids the player that he used to be.
Susie Duval made us panini. Later, Duval’s young son, Brady, led me on a tour of his room and the kids’ play area, pointing out his stuffed horse, Pete, and stuffed tiger, Petey, and his sister Sienna’s stuffed horse, whose name he said was Jealous. Standing in Brady’s room, it was hard not to think of Duval’s own boyhood. He had told me he wanted to write an autobiography. But wouldn’t an autobiographer have to delve into his past? Wouldn’t he have to wonder whether the trauma of the brother who died had something to do with how long it took the brother who survived to realize he was allowed to be happy? And surely Duval’s resolve to be a great father reflected the dissolution of his childhood home, just as the extraordinary life he’d created as a top athlete was bound up in the ordinary life he’d had before it all fell apart.
There was a simple cross in the kids’ playroom and plain silver crosses scattered on shelves around the house. When we had resettled in the dining room, I asked Duval about his religious convictions. He said it was a subject that he preferred remain private, but he did believe that some transcendent force, as he put it in an odd and telling phrase, had "meddled" with the universe and enabled his and Susie’s paths to cross that August night.
"It’s easy to love your wife and kids, but I cherish Susie; I cherish my kids. If it wasn’t for Susie and these kids, I would have stopped playing golf a few years ago. It’s Susie and the kids who taught me that what I am is not what I do; it’s Susie and the kids who showed me that I don’t have to be golf. But golf is still so ingrained in my psyche, it takes a conscious effort for me to separate ‘David’ from ‘golf.’"
"At this point what does golf give you?"
"Tremendous joy," he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
Having a family of his own had opened his eyes to the anguish of his parents. "I thought I had a handle on what it was like to lose a child," he said. "I had no idea." But being better able to gauge the depth of his father’s heartbreak had also made it harder for him to understand how his father could have left, and it was his mother’s example that spoke to him most deeply now.
"She did everything for us," he said. "Her life was about sacrifice. I’m not sure I could have told you what I learned from her before she died, but now I think what I learned is compassion. And love of one’s family. Love of one’s spouse."
He looked up with strangely boyish, undefended eyes.
"I’m a nice person," he said out of the blue. "It just took me a long time to let people know it."
I wondered if he had been provoked by the memory of old criticism, or the way he acted when he was number one, carrying himself with what he regretted now as an air of entitlement. Meeting his wife and witnessing the birth of his children implied that Fortune was not entirely punitive. There was providence out there as well as deprivation, a benevolence running counter to the general drift of his bad bounces and unlucky breaks, of homes unraveling, brothers dying. Perhaps Duval had seen the limits of his golfer’s self-sufficiency and was rethinking the brash young egotist he’d been a lifetime ago, back when he embraced Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, with its disdain for people who subordinate themselves to the needs of others and its contempt for the altruism that, as a parent, he had come to honor as among the greatest of his mother’s virtues.
Why had it taken him so long to let people know the man behind the mask?
"Maturity," he said. "Growing up. Realizing that one thing doesn’t come at the expense of another."
V. CONFIDENCE MAN
On Friday, March 5, during Round 2 of the Honda Classic, David Duval’s father, Bob, was standing halfway down the fairway of the 217-yard, par-3 fifth, squinting at the tee where his son was about to hit. David had started his round on the back nine of the Champion course at PGA National and was already four over par. Unaware that Duval relatives were nearby, a local wiseacre named Stefan Clark shouted to the small clutch of spectators: "A dollar says Duval misses the green!"
"I’ll take some of that!" said Bob Duval.
The little gallery peered back at the tee as Duval swung an iron. His ball flew high and straight and dropped softly on the table, 25 feet above the pin.
Clark grimaced and peeled a dollar off a wad of bills.
"That’s okay," said Bob Duval, refusing the money. "Just tell ’em you got beat by his dad."
"I would have asked for odds if I had known I was betting against his father."
Bob Duval laughed.
"Is he coming back?" Clark asked.
"He’s starting to play better," said Bob.
And indeed, during Thursday’s round, Duval, in black pants and an off-white windbreaker, started out like it was 1999. Despite the cold wind, the 7:26 am tee time, and his having stayed up until 3 am the night before talking with his father and his father-in-law, Joe Cipri, he was one under after five holes. But at the par-4 sixth, he pulled his drive left into a lake and bogeyed. Two holes later, a 3-wood left and a missed nine-footer for par. At the ninth hole, a double bogey. On the par-4 10th, his drive went right; he was stymied behind a tree. Trying to punch out, he did something you almost never see on the PGA Tour: He whiffed. A triple bogey. That was that. The next day he posted a 76 to go with Thursday’s five-over-par 75 and missed the cut by a mile.
"It’s a hard course," Duval told me later. "I played okay; I just hit a couple bad spots. Even the second day, I thought, ‘I hit the ball pretty good – how did I shoot six over par?’"
Duval’s best result so far this year was his second-place finish at the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in February. Was the struggle to win now, at 38, different from campaigning for his first victory, when he broke onto the PGA Tour in 1995, at age 23?
"In the end, they’re fundamentally the same," he said. "But you’re talking about an entirely different player and person, and comparing them is a fool’s errand. The feeling now is different. I can feel people pulling for me. It’s flattering. I’m constantly asked, ‘Why do you think they’re pulling for you?’ I think it goes back to being a stand-up guy, an honest person who has gone through great struggles and is still working and practicing, not quitting. I’ve had some awful days where it takes a lot of mental will to go play golf. I shot a 62 at Pebble Beach once. Six, seven years later, I shot an 85. What did I do after that? I teed it up the next day."
His performances at the U.S. Open last year and at the AT&T in February show real progress, but Duval is still missing a high percentage of cuts and won’t be playing with the hallmark consistency of his heyday until he routinely finds the fairway. Sometimes his father sees tension in his hands, and in minor tournaments Duval seems to lose focus; in majors it’s easier to focus, he said, because "you’re playing for history." But he missed the cut in April at the Masters, too.
He looked forward to the U.S. Open this June, the championship he coveted most. He expected to win again soon on the PGA Tour, he said. "I’m preparing to do it. Some of the stuff I was doing at the Honda was preparation work for the U.S. Open. Tinkering with clubs, tinkering with wedges. Mentally I’m thinking about my name on the leaderboard."
He had learned from his years in the wilderness that nothing was more important to a golfer than confidence. Confidence was what enabled him to dominate the best players in the world. What he now knew was that confidence had to be protected and nurtured. He’d been rebuilding his confidence; it still wasn’t where it needed to be, he said, but it was almost there, like his game. Maybe it was his game. As if to demonstrate how far along the reconstruction project was, he said, "I think I am one of the 10 or 20 best golfers in the world."The unsentimental numbers of the money list and the world rankings would beg to differ. Maybe he was just psyching himself up, worried that what made him great was gone. If so, more power to him. Maybe he was just whistling to get past his graveyards. God help him with that. The more he spoke of confidence, the more elusive it seemed, and I had to look the word up before it slipped its moorings completely. Confidence: the belief in one’s self and one’s abilities. The enchanted stuff of an ancient game, and so absurdly easy to come by when you’re young and don’t know who you are.