The 99th U.S. Open began with questions about David Duval's
domestic skills and ended with questions about his ability to
handle the hype, to say nothing of his wedge game. In between he
lost the tournament as well as his aura, thanks to a mystifying
pair of 75s on the weekend.
Phil Mickelson's balky putter may have prevented Duval from
taking sole custody of the dread title, Best player never to
have won a major, but the pressure and the pathos are clearly
beginning to take their toll on Duval. In the moments following
his final round, during which he had gone from only three
strokes off the overnight lead to a tie for seventh, eight shots
behind winner Payne Stewart, he was asked how much this loss
hurt. Duval's glassy eyes and hoarse, lifeless voice were
eloquent enough, but he found just the right words. "Probably
more than you can imagine," he said.
What made the collapse all the more confounding was that even
with his introspective nature, Duval couldn't produce an
explanation. "I don't know what happened out there," he said in
the eerily deserted locker room at the Pinehurst Resort and
Country Club. "I'm not sure if I ever will." Earlier he had said
of his final-round flop, "This was not a consideration. This was
not an option. I never imagined I would be explaining myself
under these circumstances."
Duval, the world No. 1 heading into the championship, ran into
bad luck even before he got to Pinehurst. On Friday, June 11,
six days before the Open's first round, Duval was puttering
around his new home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., boiling water
for a cup of instant coffee in a teapot on his gas stove. Duval
had moved into the house only a few days earlier, and he was
unaware of how much more juice his new stove had compared with
the old electric unit in his previous abode. Expecting the
teapot to still be warming, Duval grabbed it with his right hand
and received second-degree burns on his index finger and thumb.
For five days before the most exacting tournament of the year,
he could not touch a club. "It's kind of funny. I go
snowboarding, and people think I'm crazy," Duval said a few days
later at Pinehurst. "I've never had any problems doing that. But
trying to fix a cup of coffee, I almost take myself out. Maybe I
should've just got on a mountain and bought a cup of coffee at
June 27, 1999
Much to his chagrin, Duval's injury set off a mini media frenzy,
and early in the week Pinehurst was abuzz with breathless reports
about which burn cream he was using, how much adhesive tape he
was consuming and which make and model of righthand gloves he had
had shipped in, just in case. That Duval had been sharp during
his practice rounds did nothing to cool the public's desire for
details concerning his recovery. What finally rendered the story
moot was Duval's first-round 67, during which he hit 14 greens,
didn't make a bogey and took a share of the lead. He called it
the finest round he had played in his seven Opens.
After two quick birdies on Friday, Duval looked as if he might
run away with the tournament, but then he provided a portent of
what was to come. On the par-3 6th hole his sand shot rolled
over the green and then, following the comebacker, he blew a
five-footer for a momentum-killing double-bogey 5. The rest of
the round was eventful, to say the least, as he made three more
birdies and three bogeys for a 70 and retained a piece of the
lead with playing partner Mickelson and Payne Stewart. Two
rounds in, Duval was thriving on the unique challenges of
Pinehurst No. 2. "I enjoy what it does to you as a player, how
it makes you a little goofy at times," he said.
Truer words have never been spoken. The opening nine holes of
Duval's third round will dog him at least until he gets that
elusive first major. Playing in the final pairing, he shot a
smooth 40 on the front nine that included a double bogey on the
tough par-4 5th hole. He missed the green long and left with his
approach, the one place where every player dared not stray, and
then took four to get down, dropping to even par for the
tournament. Duval never again got into red numbers. His shirt
collar, fastidiously buttoned to the top as always, seemed to
grow more constricting with every hack.
Duval did stop the bleeding with nine straight pars on the back
but afterward couldn't recall the last time he had gone an
entire round without a birdie. "My approach, my targets and my
game plan were flawless," Duval said, groping for a positive
spin. "It was just my execution." At two over, he was still
within striking distance, three back of Stewart, in a three-way
tie for fifth.
On Sunday, Duval came out with the kind of focus and fire we've
come to expect. He stuck his approach on the testy 2nd hole to
within a foot for a gimme birdie and then holed a 30-footer for
another bird on number 3. That propelled him back to even par,
and tied him with Mickelson and Tiger Woods, just one stroke
back of Stewart. The game was on. The birdies, though, had a
strange effect on Duval. One might think that they emboldened
him too much, and it was overly aggressive play that did him in,
but just the opposite was true. "I became too passive," said
Duval. "When I reached even, I felt like I was sitting on the
winning score and all I had to do was make pars the rest of the
way." Duval's first hiccup came at the 6th hole, where he missed
the green and failed to get up and down. On the brutal 485-yard,
par-4 8th he bailed out to the one safe spot, short and right of
the green, but followed with a weak chip and a missed six-footer
Duval could already feel the tournament slipping away when he
stepped to the tee at the 9th, a par-3 of 179 yards that was the
shortest hole on the course and statistically only the eighth
toughest. Duval put a defensive swing on the ball, and it
drifted left ("The one place you can't hit it," he said) and
ended up buried in the fluffy sand beneath the lip of one of the
deeper bunkers on No. 2. Sand play has long been the weakest
part of Duval's game, and he knows it. In fact, the morning
after his historic 59, in the final round of the Bob Hope
Chrysler Classic back in January, Duval spent an hour working in
a practice bunker at the Phoenix Open. At Pinehurst there was no
evidence that this extra work had paid off, as Duval had only
three sand saves in nine chances. At the 9th on Sunday he gouged
his ball out of the trap and then watched it scoot past the pin
and down the back of the green. "That just proves this isn't a
game of deserves, because I didn't deserve that," said Duval.
"But you know what? The game doesn't care."
Trying to get too cute with his chip, Duval left it short and
watched in horror as it rolled back to his feet. In an
uncharacteristic fit of pique, he slammed down his sand wedge.
The next chip whizzed eight feet by the cup. He made the putt
for a deadly double bogey.
At that moment he was six shots back of Stewart, stalled in a
tie for fifth. His tournament was, for all intents and purposes,
over, which NBC soon confirmed by exiling him from the telecast.
On the back nine he made three more meaningless bogeys to skid
to the tie for seventh, making the Open the fourth major of the
last six in which he has finished in the top seven.
"The U.S. Open tends to expose your weaknesses, and I think it's
fair to say my play around the greens let me down this week,"
said Duval. Like Jack Nicklaus, Duval has never developed an
imaginative short game because, with the proficiency of his ball
striking, he hasn't needed one. That is, not until this Open on
this course. For the tournament Duval led the field in greens
hit in regulation, at 65%, but his score reflects how little
success he had in getting the ball in the hole when he did miss
the putting surface. "I didn't help myself with my wedges, and I
didn't hole the putts I needed. There's no excuse for that,
because I'm a great putter," he said.
From the whole of Duval's memorable week, one image lingers.
Throughout his back nine on Sunday, Duval was a dead man
walking, as his gallery and his enthusiasm deserted him. By the
time he reached the 18th green in the gloaming, he was a picture
of dejection. Down the hill Mickelson, Stewart and Woods were
inspiring cheers and groans and the sound of stampeding feet
echoing through the pines. The U.S. Open was being decided, and
all Duval could do was stand there, arms crossed, as stoic as a
stone Buddha, waiting to putt out and put an end to his misery.
Suddenly the numbers on the massive greenside scoreboard began
to flutter. Every head craned to get the update. The fans roared
their delight or their disapproval. Duval, staring into the
distance, never looked up.
"I go snowboarding, and people think I'm crazy," said Duval.
"But trying to fix a cup of coffee, I almost take myself out."
"When I reached even, I felt like I was sitting on the winning
score and all I had to do was make pars," Duval said.