AUGUSTA – If you missed the last time David Duval played in the Masters, the chalk outlines probably still exist somewhere along the second hole. He punched a hole in the azaleas, bounced consecutive shots off the trees, found shrubbery and pine straw and sand and possibly the corpse of Jimmy Hoffa – and after 10 shots, the hole.
After 24 holes in the 2006 Masters, he was 20-over and had qualified for FEMA relief.
Somehow, Duval is back in Augusta this week. Nearly nine years removed from his last victory (2001 British Open), and after one of the most spectacular grease fires in sports history, the former Georgia Tech All-American qualified for his first Masters since 2006 by finishing second in the U.S. Open last year.
Notwithstanding Tiger Woods’ public humiliation, it’s hard to imagine a more humbled competitor here than Duval. He was the No. 1 player in the world. He is the last player to finish atop the PGA Tour money list (1998) not named Woods or Vijay Singh. He won 13 tournaments between 1997 and 2001, had a fat deal with Nike and was on the top shelf of the trophy case at IMG.
Know where Duval was this winter? In Tour qualifying school (”Q school”).
“A little bit of a reality check,” he said. “I felt it was the best thing for me to do. I wanted to play. I wanted to earn my way so I wouldn’t have to ask for spots.”
Did that, too.
Twice early this season, Duval phoned and sent letters to tournament directors, asking for sponsor exemptions so he could play, since he doesn’t have a full Tour card any more. The San Diego Open balked at Duval but said yes to the clownish John Daly (who didn’t make the cut). San Diego extended an 11th hour invitation to Duval but he declined.
“I got turned down in the first [tournament] I asked, and then I got turned down by the second one,” said Duval, who wouldn’t identify either. “I called the second one [afterward]. I asked the guy, ‘Please don’t take this the wrong way. I understand you have to make your decisions. But am I doing this correctly? I’ve never done this before.’ He said, ‘No, it’s fine.’ So I said, ‘Great, I’ll see you next year when I don’t have to ask for a spot.’”
He has found the whole experience a bit humbling — particularly when a few young players asked for his autograph at Q-school.
“You kind of take it for granted, and make the assumption, ‘OK, I’m gonna be playing here. I’m gonna be playing there.’ You don’t realize that you’re actually doing some great things just to [qualify].”
From No. 1 in 1998, Duval had tumbled to No. 882 when he qualified for last year’s U.S. Open via a qualifying tournament. He stunned everybody by finished second, first top-10 finish since 2002. His check for $559,830 nearly matched his earnings of the previous five years combined.
He made the cut in only 11 of 42 tournaments in 2008 and 2009, and only one of 20 in 2005. In 2006, he missed the Masters cut for the fourth straight year after finishing second-third-sixth-second in the previous four. The only comic relief came when his stepmother asked him, “What didn’t you hit on No. 2?” and Duval responded, “The fairway.”
There were several reasons for the slide. Injuries (back). Swing problems. Family issues. Probably arrogance. The story went from the greatness to the crash of David Duval. Always prickly with the media, he grew tired of being asked about his decline. Sometimes he wouldn’t talk at all. He’s not real big on psychoanalysis in the interview room. Even Tuesday, he grew mildly irritated when his fall was probed. Can’t blame him.
Ask how he has made it back this far and he says simply, “It’s taken a while to put it back together. I’m starting to reap some of the rewards of that work.”
Not that he is back on top. He finished second at Pebble Beach this season, but he has made the cut in only three of seven tournaments. Few believed he would be back in Augusta after 2006. He plans to take full advantage, even playing in the Par 3 tournament. He says he has a “greater appreciation” for these things.
As for whether he feels he’s back, Duval said, “I’m entirely comfortable with what I’m doing right now.”
Just qualifying was a step forward.
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