Raw Talent

There are shades of greatness about David Duval, the best of a promising trio of young PGA Tour rookies
February 27, 1995

David Duval can't help it. He stands out. Wraparound sunglasses. A bouncy, blond wedge cut. Shirts with the top button fastened. But what really sets Duval apart is summed up in his nickname, Rock. From the short, powerful legs on his six-foot, 200-pound-plus frame to the contact he makes with a long iron to his granite resolve while contemplating his next shot, everything about the way the 23-year-old Duval plays golf suggests the solidity of a boulder. Throw in a record that includes a U.S. Junior Amateur championship and four first-team All-America selections while at Georgia Tech, as well as a penchant for slow play, a disquieting directness and a self-possession that has been taken for arrogance and—attribute for attribute—Duval has more in common with the young Jack Nicklaus than anyone since the original.

Fortunately for Duval, the cursed title of the Next Nicklaus is currently being lugged around by Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, having been bequeathed to and fumbled by talents ranging from Eddie Pearce to Greg Norman. Also, Duval forfeited his claim by committing the very un-Nicklausian blunder of flaming out at the PGA Tour's qualifying school at the end of 1993, leading to a season on the Nike Tour.

This brush with failure might have been the best thing that ever happened to Duval's golf career. He spent 1994 earning an exemption to the big Tour. This year, unburdened of much of the baggage from his vaunted reputation, Duval is showing precisely why it was never undeserved. With his second-place finish to Kenny Perry on Sunday at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Bermuda Dunes, Calif., Duval now has two runner-up finishes and a tie for sixth in five Tour events this year. His $342,121 in winnings ranks him second on the money list.

Duval very nearly got his first victory at the Hope, but after making three birdies on the front nine of the fifth and final round to get within a shot of Perry, he couldn't convert another until the 90th hole. He finished one stroke back with a 24-under-par 336 and afterward pronounced himself "pleased" but not "extremely pleased." The young man knows he can do better.

Nonetheless, Duval's success has been enough to trigger golf's compulsion to anoint its wunderkind. It's a practice as old as young Bobby Jones, but it carries a particular urgency these days. Golf used to routinely produce stars in their early 20's. Now there are hardly any, particularly in the American game.

Consider that in this decade only Mickelson, Els, Josè María Olazàbal and Robert Gamez have won on the Tour before their 25th birthday. And among current members, only Duval, Jim Furyk, 24, Justin Leonard, 22, and Joe Acosta Jr., 21, have a chance to join that club.

Until relatively recently, winning before the age of 25 was no special feat. The alphabetical list of still-active Tour players who did so in the 1970s and '80s begins with Clampett, ends with Watson and includes 25 other names in between. In addition to players such as Crenshaw, Strange and Wadkins, the list includes secondary figures such as David Edwards, Rick Fehr, Gary Hallberg and Gene Sauers. Add a whole bunch of no-longer-active players such as Forest Fezler, Tim Norris, Sam Randolph, Jack Renner, Ron Streck and Fred Wadsworth, and it's clear that winning young was once no big deal.

But now it is. Players joining the PGA Tour are getting older and older. Top college golfers used to go straight from school to the Tour by the age of 22, but that transition is almost unheard of today. In the '90s the only players to have accomplished it are Gamez, Mickelson, Dudley Hart, Jimmy Johnston and, this year, Leonard and Acosta.

Today the average age of PGA Tour rookies is more like 27. The reasons are basic. As the ever-growing game has developed more good players, the once seemingly vast PGA Tour has become a smaller and smaller arena. Because the Tour can accommodate only about 200 competitors a year, secondary tours have expanded all over the world. At the same time, with the success of the Senior tour, older members of the PGA Tour are keeping their games competitive well into their 40's, further reducing the turnover.

The average PGA Tour rookie these days has played on mini-tours, foreign tours and probably the Nike Tour. That cycle usually takes at least five years. It also generally includes a few unsuccessful stabs at the qualifying school, which each year is filled with more seasoned players.

The trip to the promised land is longer and more difficult, and the only upside is that the secondary tours have progressed to the point that good players can now make a decent living on them. Perhaps the epitome of such a player is Bruce Vaughan, who at 38 is the oldest rookie on the PGA Tour. He earned his spot in the ranks by virtue of his sixth-place finish on last year's Nike Tour, for which he earned $129,617. For the 12 years previous to that, Vaughan played a mixture of U.S. mini-tours and circuits in South Africa, Australia and Asia.

Acosta and Leonard, the only rookies to jump straight from college to the PGA Tour this year, could tout themselves as the game's Generation X-cellence. Acosta is the Tour's youngest player. A 6'3", 170-pound bean pole from Fresno State, he was twice a second-team All-America but lacked any credentials of note in national amateur events. Still, he left school a semester early to turn pro and entered his first Q school last December. He finished 27th and just like that, was living his dream.

Acosta, whose boyishness is accentuated by the braces he wears on his teeth, has a big, graceful, self-taught swing with classic lines and plenty of pop. At the Hope, his fourth event as a pro, he finished 33rd at 15 under 345. Despite still being a little awestruck, he clearly has a clue. "I know I'm young, but I feel this is where I belong," he says. "My biggest problem is impatience. Anyone can come out and do well when everything in your game is going good. The key is what you do when that's not the case."

For real precociousness, no one tops Leonard, whose dead-handed, low-risk swing, point-to-point game and solemn work ethic are reminiscent of his 45-year-old mentor and fellow Texan, Tom Kite.

Leonard showed himself to be the real thing when, after winning the U.S. Amateur in 1992, he played in five PGA Tour events the next year and made four cuts. He turned pro last year before the U.S. Open at Oakmont, with the intention of trying to convert the five sponsor exemptions he knew he would receive into enough prize money to qualify for the 1995 Tour. Although he missed eight cuts in 13 events, Leonard finished third at Anheuser-Busch and tied for sixth at New England. He was also in the top 20 in his last two starts, at the Buick Southern Open and the Texas Open, which gave him enough money, $140,413, to finish 126th on the money list and earn his card without having to go to Q school.

This year Leonard missed three cuts before making his first at San Diego. He had his best tournament of the year at the Hope, finishing 14th at 19 under.

Although Leonard has been widely tabbed for future stardom because of his poise and mental toughness, the 5'9", 160-pounder's lack of length is a big drawback. Leonard is averaging 250 yards off the tee, but he believes he gained some distance by switching to a metal-headed driver and going on a weightlifting regimen.

"For me, right now, it's all about learning golf courses," says Leonard. "Other than that, I'm very comfortable."

So, of course, is Duval. With a father and an uncle who are golf pros, and a grandfather who was, Duval says he has known he was going to be on the Tour since he chose golf as his main sport as an 11-year-old growing up in Jacksonville.

While building the foundation of his game with daily practice at the Timuquana Country Club, where his father, Bob, was the pro, Duval developed a cool competitive temperament to go with a classic power game. At a young age he learned how to use the same kind of "strong" grip (with the back of the left hand turned clockwise away from the target) employed by players such as John Daly and Fred Couples to generate tremendous club-head speed. Duval won the junior amateur at 17. The next year he qualified for the U.S. Open at Medinah and was only four strokes off the lead on the seventh tee of the final round, though he ultimately shot 43 on the back nine and finished 56th. At 20, playing in the Bell South Classic, he led by four strokes after 56 holes before a charge by Kite and his own collapse dropped him to 13th.

After joining Mickelson and Gary Hallberg as the only players to make first team All-America four years running, Duval left Georgia Tech in 1993 and turned pro. In nine events on the Nike Tour, he finished 11th on the money list with $126,430, only $2,875 short of gaining an exemption to the PGA Tour. Forced to go to his first Q school in December, Duval missed the 72-hole cut by one shot. "I fell on my face, and I had to deal with that," he says. "There were a lot of expectations, and I got kind of caught up in the spotlight. The worst thing is when you start listening and believing, because then your work ethic dies a bit."

Discouraged at his failure, Duval remained in the doldrums well into the next summer on the Nike Tour. By August he was 18th on the money list and seemingly headed for another Q school. Making things worse was the pending divorce of his parents. It was at this low point that his college coach and close friend, Puggy Blackmon. prevailed upon Duval to take a week off from competition to attend the College Golf Fellowship Conference. He emerged refreshed and made a late-season rally that put him on the PGA Tour.

"Last year made me a better player and a better person," says Duval, who is concerned that he is perceived as a preening egotist. He explains that he took to wearing wraparound sunglasses to help keep pollen and dust out of his contact lenses, and indeed, many players have begun wearing them. He does admit that buttoning his shirts all the way to the top is evidence of being "a little bit anal," a characteristic that he admits contributes to his being a fastidious, and sometimes annoyingly slow, player. "It's a cleaner look. That's part of the nature of our sport," he says. "You don't tee off around nine o'clock. You tee off at 9:03. But I do get too meticulous." As for his hair, he has taken to wearing it shorter so that it doesn't fall in his eyes or as he did at the Hope, wearing a hat, thus eliminating a habitual head flip that was perceived as affected.

"I can only concentrate on treating people the way I want to be treated," says Duval. "I'm quiet, and I leave people alone because I like to be left alone."

Solitude was a key ingredient to Duval's fast start this year. After the final Nike event, in October, Duval put his clubs away for a month. Then, using the vast practice range at the Tournament Players Club in Ponte Vedra, he went about improving his short game, hitting thousands of balls, often under the eye of his father. By the time he arrived in Hawaii last month for his first event as a Tour member, his game was eerily sharp.

"It was an unnerving feeling," says Duval. "I didn't need to go to the driving range, or the putting green, or get in the bunker. I've never been that satisfied with my game before. I was ready to play."

Duval finished tied for 14th at Hawaii, then tied for sixth at Tucson. Two weeks later he finished second to Peter Jacobsen at Pebble Beach, closing with a 67. "Believe me," says an impressed Jacobsen, "David Duval is for real."

He made the case again at the Hope. In an era when youth is being eclipsed on the Tour, Duval can't help it. He stands out.

PHOTO PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINDuval is off to a fast start, including a second at the AT&T (above), and he's also buttoning up his image. PHOTOROBERT BECK[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSROBERT BECKFuryk (above) and Acosta are two of only five players on the Tour who could win before turning 25. PHOTOROBERT BECKLeonard is one rookie who didn't have to claw his way onto the Tour.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)