Going Backward?

Playing in what could be his final Masters, David Duval displayed the form that signaled either his imminent demise or the next step in what would be a remarkable comeback
April 16, 2006

It would've beena 10-minute walk, tops, from the 2nd green to the clubhouse at AugustaNational. And after David Duval's all-out assault on the flora bordering theleft side of the 2nd fairway last Friday--he had hooked his drive into someazaleas, leading to a 10 on the par-5--you had to wonder if he was tempted toduck under the ropes and skip town. ¶ Here was Duval, the Oakley-armored enigmawho'd been a leader board fixture at four straight Masters (1998 through '01),playing for perhaps the final time at Augusta. Between 1997 and 2001 Duval won13 PGA Tour events, the last of which was the '01 British Open. That win camewith a five-year Masters exemption, which expired last Friday when he missedthe cut by 11 shots. Since those heady days in '01, as the entire cosmos knows,Duval has been in dizzying free fall, a plummet accelerated by an array ofmaladies that included, appropriately, vertigo. Spraying tee shots andcrisscrossing fairways throughout his opening-round 84 at Augusta, the formerNo. 1 player in the world elicited not awe, but pity.

The backgroundnoise at this year's Masters was the vaguely absurd, borderline theologicaldebate over what a pair of dead men, Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, trulyintended when they designed Augusta National. What they did not intend was forgolfers to play the first two holes in seven over par, which is what Duval didby going double-bogey, quintuple-bogey to start the second round. Instead ofpicking up his ball and going home--at that point he stood at a jaw-dropping 19over through 20 holes--Duval did something completely unexpected: He turnedback the clock and started playing like the Duval of old, hitting fairways,dive-bombing pins and burying putts. And he had a bit of luck. His drive on thepar-5 8th hole was forest-bound but instead took one hop and struck BrooksYoumans, 59, in the left pectoral. Youmans, who was not injured, happens to bea Georgia Tech alum.

"Hope I savedyou a stroke," he told Duval, the four-time All-America for the YellowJackets, who indeed went on to save par.

Duval birdiednumbers 3, 7, 12, 14, 15 and 17. On the day no one had a higher score on thefront nine than Duval's 43, and no one bettered his back-nine 32. Following oneof the most bipolar rounds in Masters history, one could make the point thatDuval found his game only after his fate was sealed and the pressure was off.The man himself saw it differently. "I didn't do very well yesterday,"he said, "and I had a nightmare start today, but for the next 16 holes Iplayed as well as anybody on the course. My game is there. It's simply a matterof gaining a little more confidence. I'm close."

Well, closer.After missing the cut in 19 of 20 starts last season, Duval has recently shownflashes. In November he was the first-round leader at the Dunlop Phoenixtournament in Miyazaki, Japan--outplaying the likes of Tiger Woods and JimFuryk--before fading to a tie for seventh. In eight starts this year he hasmade three cuts, his best finish a 31st in the Sony Open.

After workingthrough a Rolodex of swing gurus and sports psychologists, Duval reunited withhis old coach at Tech, Puggy Blackmon, now the coach at South Carolina, at lastyear's Masters. "When I got to him," Blackmon says, "there was someweird stuff going on [with Duval's swing]." While they have worked torestore the motion that propelled him to No. 1 in the world in 1999, Duval hasalso returned to his former physique. In the mid-90s Duval drastically reshapedhis body, morphing from panda-shaped to sculpted. In 2000 he suffered the backinjury that began his downward spiral. He is now, as Mike Weir diplomaticallyput it last week, "back to his old body style."

Duval, 34, isheavier, and infinitely happier. Following him around the National last weekwas Susan Persichitte, who Duval met in Denver in August 2003 and married thefollowing March. He has embraced, and been embraced by, Susan's sons from aprevious marriage, Deano, 16, and Nick, 13. Deano was on Duval's bag duringlast Wednesday's par-3 contest. The ranks of their postmodern family grew byone a year ago, when Susan gave birth to Brayden, a fitful sleeper whosediapers, Duval assured a reporter, he frequently changes. "I was on thecase this morning," he said, finally cracking a smile an hour afterFriday's round.

Away from hisbrood Duval is focused on getting his game back. "And I believe hewill," says fellow pro Tim Herron. "He's been swinging it much betterlately. But the big news is, he's never been this happy. Does he let bad roundsget to him? Of course. They get to all of us. But he has a wife and a baby, andwhen he's home, he's home. He's away from it."

"He has alittle of his swagger back," says Justin Leonard, who played a practiceround with Duval on Wednesday. "He knows he's playing well, and he's notafraid to tell you. It's fun to see him hitting shots and not worrying aboutwhere his ball is going to end up."

During threepractice rounds last week Duval tore up the National, but the moment itmattered on Thursday morning, he had no clue, duck-hooking his opening driveoff an evergreen and setting the tone for a round that served as a primer onAugusta's varied plant life.

The most tellingvignette came on 13, where his drive plunged into an azalea patch half afootball field left of the fairway. While a small army of forecaddies andofficials beat the bushes looking for his ball, Duval trudged toward them, headbowed, the picture of dejection.

No lessdespondent was his caddie, Jeff Weber, who sat on the range afterward lookingshell-shocked. "Watch the guy hit balls on the range," he said,"and you think he's going to win."

Sure enough,Duval was striping it while warming up the next morning, drawing and fading hisdriver under the watchful eye of his father, Bob, a former Champions tourplayer. We know what happened next.

Duval does notbelieve that he's beyond repair. Many players have lost, then recovered, theirmojo. "It's simply a matter of getting back some of that belief inmyself," he said on Friday while walking toward the car that would take himdown Magnolia Lane for perhaps the final time.

A bit earlier,after he had tapped in for par on 18, the fans surrounding the green applaudedwarmly. Some of them even stood for him, as if this might be their last chanceto cheer a man taking leave of the place for good.

PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Beck REVERSEPLAY
During an opening 84, Duval was forced to play with his back to the fairwayafter his ball came to rest against a tree.
PHOTOPhotographs by Robert Beck TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert Beck LIFELINES
Duval connected with Weber while Susan (left) cheered them on.

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)