Sport, like politics, is an arena in which the time between a career’s pinnacle and its demise can be perilously brief. It is usually the athlete in the arena who is most shocked by a premature end, understandably enough since it’s natural to assume great days lie ahead if you’ve recently beaten the best in your field.
David Duval expected more peaks after July 22, 2001, when he won the Open Championship at Royal Lytham. It was his first major victory.
More seemed inevitable, especially considering the prelude to that summer in England. Duval had posted seven runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour before finally winning in October 1997.
He won the next week too. And again, two weeks after that. There were another four wins in ’98. Four more in ’99, including the Players Championship and the old Bob Hope stop, courtesy of a final-round 59. Four straight years he came close to winning the Masters.
He was the top-ranked golfer in the world.
All of that explains why friends of Tiger Woods used to say Duval was the only player Woods felt threatened by. Not Ernie, not Vijay, not Phil. Just Duval.
The victory at Lytham was Duval’s 13th on the PGA Tour. He was 29 years old.
“Even though I had started dealing with injuries the year before, you kind of figure you’re going to get through them and feel better,” he told me recently, while watching the latest generation of stars on the range at Pebble Beach.
“You figure there’s going to be many more opportunities. At least five years worth, or something. That gives you 20 of them.”
Four months after his Open triumph, Duval won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan two days after his 30th birthday. He never won again. Anywhere. “By then, as you know, my body kind of fell apart and I didn’t really have another opportunity,” he said.
An oft-repeated story has a philosophical Duval cradling the Claret Jug on the return flight from Lytham and telling his manager that he thought it would feel different. “There’s something to that. It wasn’t necessarily on the flight back. It wasn’t necessarily the next week. But just kind of as you’re reflecting,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like I felt bad, because there’s an insinuation that I was. But you think it’s going to be different than it is.”
Different how, I ask? Life-altering?
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know the answer to that question.”
Duval got married, had kids and found happiness outside golf. Inside the ropes, injuries and poor form bedeviled him. Few great players experienced deeper troughs.
There was a stretch in which he made eight cuts in 48 PGA Tour starts.
With family and TV commitments, his tournament schedule is now limited to a handful of events. He last made a cut at the 2015 Open. He’s 3000-1 to win it next week.
There’ve been 16 starts in those four years, delivering 13 missed cuts and three WDs.
Competitors aren’t wired like the rest of us.
There remains a flicker of self-belief, no matter the horrors.
Duval almost won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black a decade ago, finishing T-2. It was the kind of Lazarus appearance on the leaderboard that allows him to believe there might yet be another bullet in the chamber.
Duval heads to Royal Portrush, playing with status as a past champion, with more hope than expectation.
“Health-wise I feel fine. You never know, you might win the golf tournament,” he said with a smile. “But who knows?”
That is unlikely, of course. But no less improbable than if someone had suggested on that July day 18 years ago that the newly crowned Open champion already was finished. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the July 2019 issue of Golfweek.)