Slippery Slope David Duval's slide from No. 1 has been ugly, but does golf's best snowboarder care enough to get back to the top?

April 07, 2003

It's Valentine's Day, and as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and 152
other PGA Tour pros are preparing to tee off for the second round
of the Buick Invitational outside San Diego, David Duval rides a
chair lift through the layer of fog shrouding Bald Mountain in
Sun Valley, Idaho. He's about to begin his 26th day of
snowboarding this season. He's wearing a red Boeri helmet, Oakley
goggles, black boarding pants and a dark jacket.

The sunscreen has been applied. Stuffed in his pockets are a
larder of Clif Bars and PowerBars (heavy on the peanut butter).
As the lift ascends, the fog dissipates and Duval turns to admire
the view. When asked what keeps him from moving to this mountain
paradise full time, he answers half-jokingly, "Guilt," and then
explains that he has to be near a golf course from time to time.

Duval is willing to talk about golf only during the first few
lift rides of the morning, before his boarding buddies show up.
When asked how he gets over a bad round, he says, "A bad round?"
and then laughs in his ironic way. "How 'bout a bad year and a
half?" The words hang there, like the fog below.

Duval, 31, is at a crossroads. It's been all downhill since his
victory at the 2001 British Open. He has endured a breakup with
his fiancee and a run of bad health and bad golf, all of which
has him tinkering with his swing and his equipment and answering
questions about what's become of his golfing mojo since those
not-so-distant days when he sipped Colt 45 from the claret jug.

"You figure winning a major will make you feel on top of the
world for a long, long time, and then you realize it doesn't,"
Duval says. "If you're seeking personal fulfillment through that,
my experience says you're not going to find it. Some people may,
but that's somebody who's leading a different life than I do. I
think [having] perspective probably is a hindrance to me. I have
a pretty good grasp of the fact that [golf] is not particularly
important in the end."

Sun Valley is where the superfit Duval comes to maintain his
perspective. The minute he straps into his K2 Ambush board, he's
consumed by the challenge of blasting through the elements with
only the next turn to think about. Duval does not let anything
stand in the way of a serious day's rip. His boarding is fast,
playful and take-air-whenever-possible. Blink and you might lose
him for the day.

This is his sixth day in a row on the snow. Soon he's joined by
his high-altitude homeys. There is Jim Hungelmann, 53, a
high-ranking corporate executive who boards in an old kayaking
helmet. Duval and Hungelmann recently returned from a two-day
heli-boarding trip in the backcountry around Sun Valley, which,
it becomes clear, was not intense enough for them. Also along is
28-year-old Jake Schmillen, a sweet, spirited local who works at
Sturtos snowboard shop and who, on this morning, is jacked about
steering the guys to his favorite new jump. "I've never seen
anybody who loves this as much as he does," Schmillen says of
Duval. "When I first met David, I had no idea he was a golfer. I
thought he was a college student on spring break. He was always
on the mountain, from the minute the lift opened until the end of
the day."

If there's such a thing as a controlled maniac, Duval on his
board would qualify. He methodically breaks down the jump
Schmillen has recommended. There's about a 10-foot drop between
takeoff and landing, and at first Duval goes over it softly,
feeling it out. The next time, he straps on his wrist guards and
commits. His landing is a bit shaky, but from then on he goes for
it. "It might seem a little out of hand at times," Duval says of
risking his livelihood for some serious air. "You're not going to
see another golfer take that jump like I did, but that's who I
am. Who I want to be." He pauses, and then a mischievous smile
appears. "It's even better that I landed it, though." During the
course of this day Duval has only one painful moment, a bad
landing before lunch. "El rumpbuster" is how he refers to it.
Final day's tally: 17 nonstop runs, or roughly 53,000 vertical
feet.

No wonder the guy has vertigo. Exactly four weeks after that day
on Bald Mountain, Duval awakened in a spinning hotel room on the
morning of the second round of the Ford Championship in Miami.
His disorientation was so severe that he sought out medical
personnel to check his vital signs. He soldiered through an 80 on
Doral's Blue Monster--the second-worst round of his pro career--and
was subsequently told that he had positional vertigo. "It's one
thing after another," he says. After a week of rest Duval
returned to action at the Bay Hill Invitational, in Orlando,
where he shot 79-75 and missed the cut by a mile.

The vertigo was the latest setback in a career full of them. He
missed 10 weeks in 2000 with a bad back, and there was a
five-week layoff early in the 2001 season because of tendinitis
in his right wrist. After sliding to 80th on last season's money
list (he had finished 11th or better in each of his first seven
seasons), Duval busted his tail working on his game in the
off-season, intent on recapturing his old form. But so far his
2003 season has been a face plant. Heading into the Players
Championship, Duval had missed the cut in four of his six starts
and was 157th on the money list ($44,876) and 175th in scoring
average (73.17). As his struggles have intensified, fans and
reporters have been left to wonder what has caused his career to
derail. "Here's an interesting statistic," he says with a
sardonic chuckle. "After missing two cuts, I was first on the PGA
Tour in putting."

Duval doesn't understand why people care what's going on in his
head. In Sun Valley, on the way to the mountain, he asks in a
sincere, vulnerable way, "What's the intrigue?" He looks so
uncomfortable that for a minute it seems as if he'd prefer to
jump out of his moving Suburban than continue speaking.

Here in Idaho, people treat him like just another local, not a
Tour pro with 13 career victories and more than $16 million in
earnings. Duval does have a certain aura, an edge that makes him
more intriguing than most of his vanilla colleagues. But it is
his tantalizing potential that keeps the golf world tuned in.
Duval is the last player to be No. 1 in the World Ranking during
the Tiger Woods era. He reached that summit in March 1999, at the
tail end of a tear in which he won 11 of 34 starts. He never
seemed to enjoy the view from the top, though. And what makes his
decline more maddening is that he doesn't seem all that concerned
about his subsequent free fall.

"It seems as if people are upset with me for accepting the hand
I've been dealt," he says. "It's as if it bothers people that I'm
not more upset or mad. I don't have any less desire to play great
than I did, but it's not the sole thing in my life. I could be
here, or I could be in a hotel in San Diego," he adds, implying
that the decision is a no-brainer.

But what about his day job? It seems fair to ask Duval if he
likes golf as much as he likes snowboarding. He responds with a
huge laugh, as if he's been asked the world's dumbest question,
and answers with an emphatic "Yes."

When it's mentioned that all the time spent snowboarding can be
construed as not taking golf seriously, he is wounded. "I think
it's funny that people would say that," he says. "I'm not living
my life any differently than I did when I was winning
tournaments. I was doing it all then--snowboarding, fishing,
biking--and it was like, 'He takes advantage of it all, he enjoys
his life, he plays great golf.' But because I didn't win any
tournaments last year, suddenly I'm squandering [my talent]. I
appreciate how lucky I am. I'm trying to appreciate the bad days
as well as the good and not get bogged down in them. Maybe even
because of how lucky I am, I feel a responsibility to enjoy my
life."

Enjoyment hasn't come easy in the last 18 months, however.
Besides the injuries he has suffered, he broke off his engagement
to his girlfriend of eight years, Julie McArthur. "It was hard
for many, many months afterward," he says, "and that certainly
had an effect on me and how I played. But the right decisions
aren't always the easy ones." Duval had a rough time adjusting to
being alone on the road with only SportsCenter to keep him
company. At one point he even tried antidepressants, which he
says he's no longer taking. These days his major fix is caffeine.

After a long day of boarding Duval stops in Ketchum for his
favorite local concoction. A woman wearing bunny ears prepares a
mocha-flavored coffee with four shots of espresso, known as a
Keith Richards. Duval downs three or four of these daily. Our
next stop is Iconoclast Books, a low-key browsers' paradise and
one of Duval's favorite hangouts. He purchases six books,
including a couple on architecture and a novel, as well as a
recent edition of the gonzo quarterly McSweeney's, edited by
author David Eggers.

Duval may be a bookworm, but he is hardly analytical about his
swing. "I haven't driven it well for a stretch, that's really the
biggest difference," he says. Heading into last week's Players
Championship, Duval was 181st in driving accuracy (47.3%) and
130th in distance, at 278.8 yards. (In 2000 he finished 39th in
accuracy, at 72.1%, and 18th in distance, with 283.5 yards.) It's
no secret that he's played musical drivers of late. So far this
year he's gone from Nike to Kasco to Callaway, but he bristles
when he is reminded that Phil Mickelson called Nike equipment
inferior. "Then what's his excuse?" says Duval, who is paid a
reported $7 million a year to endorse Nike.

The edginess that surfaces when Duval discusses golf seems
incongruous as he sits in his Sun Valley home, a four-bedroom
stone-and-glass oasis that looks out onto the Big Wood River.
It's very cozy for a large place, with area rugs, comfy couches,
fluffy comforters and lots of books. Outside there's a footbridge
that leads to a tiny island in the Big Wood.

"I think he's a happier person now," says Duval's father, Bob, a
regular on the Champions tour. "The only thing he's doing
differently is enjoying his life outside of golf more. He's
enjoying everything that he has, his personal life, the
snowboarding, the mountain biking. The golf may not be fun
because he's not playing well, but he only has to make a few
adjustments to get back to the feel of where he was."

That would include being a contender at the Masters, in which,
with the exception of last year--when he missed the cut--Duval has
finished no worse than a tie for sixth since 1998, including
runner-up finishes in '98 and '01. But he's apprehensive about
this year's tournament and the presence of protesters. Duval is
still on the fence about golf's hot-button issue. "I haven't
figured out what I think," he says, "and believe me, I've been
thinking about it for six months."

Duval does not say or do things without thinking them through.
That doesn't mean he always makes sense. He says he's trying to
accept his game as it is right now, but it's clear that he's
uncomfortable with anything short of excellence. He's
open-minded, but he can also be extremely defensive. He says he
doesn't care what people think about him, but in truth he may
care too much.

It's a cliche among Duval's friends that he is a different person
away from the golf course. Those close to him consistently
mention his humor, his intelligence and his generosity. "He
always goes out of his way to offer me a ride back to Sun Valley
on his plane," says John Burke, Davis Love III's caddie and a Sun
Valley resident. "And when I was having marriage problems, he
offered me a place to stay."

But when it comes to Duval's vulnerabilities, there is fog. Golf
will continue to be his own private Idaho--the place he lets no
one into and for which he takes full responsibility. The
loneliest game has seen him through the death of his brother, his
parents' divorce, the criticism of skeptics who said he couldn't
win during his early years on the Tour and now through the
constant questioning of whether he can ever again be the player
he was.

An hour of talking about his life and career has left Duval more
drained than a long day of boarding, but he is a gentleman to the
last. "A day in the life," he says with a brief chuckle as he
walks a visitor to her car. He stares out at the darkness of the
big country sky. There's a long pause, and then Duval says, "It
doesn't suck."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID WALBERG CLOSED BOOK Duval wonders why people care what's going on in his head. COLOR PHOTO: ELISE AMENDOLA/AP OPEN AND SHUT Duval's ascent ended with his British Open win in 2001; it's been a long, bumpy ride downhill ever since. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK (2) HIS OWN PRIVATE IDAHO To critics who say he should spend more time on golf and less on the snow, Duval says he's doing just what he did when he was No. 1.

"You figure winning a major will make you feel on top of the
world for a long time, and then you realize it doesn't."

"I think he's happier now," says Duval's father. "He's not
playing well, but he only has to make a few adjustments."

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)