David Duval should have been Tiger Woods’s greatest rival at the start of the century, but injuries and off-course upheaval led to a swift and sad decline.
In January 1999, David Duval did something no other golfer had done before or achieved since. Starting the final round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic seven shots off the lead, the 27-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida birdied the first three holes. He picked up another shot at the fifth but he exploded into life just before the turn.
From the ninth onwards, he made seven birdies in eight holes to move to 11-under for his round. A par at 17 left him needing an eagle to become just the third man to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour. His approach was a beauty and left him a seven-footer which he holed with the minimum of fuss.
Duval was never known for his histrionics on the course, and three punches of the air and a raising aloft of the arms was a spectacular celebration for him. He had only been thinking about the 59, not the tournament victory which came his way. No-one had carded a 59 in the final round before, and nobody had carded a 59 to win a tournament.
Two months later, Duval won golf’s unofficial fifth major, the Players Championship, to displace Woods atop the world rankings and their rivalry looked set to define golf for the coming years. Father Bob also won on the Champions Tour that day. Duval took the Bell South Classic the following week to make it six tournament victories in the space of six months having finished on top of the money list in 1998. The Tiger had company.
There followed something of a drought, but the problems really began at the start of 2000 when he suffered bursitis, inflammation akin to tennis elbow, in his left shoulder. Then in the summer he strained his lower back and “played the Open all but crippled”. He made “compensatory swing adjustments” which eventually led to the loss of his famed accuracy off the tee and contributed to his decline.
Despite this, he still managed to win tournaments. After a barren run of 18 months, including a playoff defeat to Dennis Paulson in the Buick Classic of June 2000, Duval won the Buick Challenge in October. And then the following July he won his and only major – the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s.
Four dropped shots at the end of his second round had left Duval tied for 35th on level-par. But Saturday definitely turned out to be moving day for the American as he carded a seven-under 65 to go into the final round tied for the lead with German pair Alex Cejka and Bernhard Langer, and Welshman Ian Woosnam.
While Woosnam’s hopes were famously ended by his caddie packing an extra club in error, Duval marched on and stayed clear of the charge of Sweden’s Niclas Fasth to claim the Claret Jug by three strokes. He also produced one of the better winner’s speeches afterwards (with apologies for the quality).
Three months later he lost a playoff to Chris DiMarco to just fail to retain his Buick Challenge title. And then in November, he celebrated his 30th birthday with victory at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament on the Japanese Tour. And that was that.
In hindsight, Duval’s Open triumph was close to miraculous. He had suffered from a wrist injury in the early part of 2001, and his swing adjustments to protect his back had left him unable to control the ball as he had previously. But that win could not hide the cracks physically or mentally with Duval saying, “You figure winning a Major will make you feel on top of the world for a long, long time and then you realise it doesn’t.”
Duval’s golfing foundations stem from a childhood tragedy which led to him throwing himself completely into the game at the expense of everything else. When he was nine, his elder brother Brent developed an aggressive form of anaemia which stopped his bone marrow producing white blood cells.
David was found to be a near-match for a bone marrow transplant and the operation was initially a success. But then the new bone marrow started attacking Brent’s body leading to a rapid deterioration in his condition. This traumatic series of events culminated in David rushing out of a hospital room screaming as he saw his stricken brother for the last time.
After teaching his son his golf swing, Duval’s father Bob left the family home before returning a year later. He would eventually leave again in 1994 just after his son turned professional.
Duval Jr’s single-minded approach to golf made him unpopular with team-mates and opponents throughout his school and college career. But there was no doubting his ability as he won the US Junior Amateur title in 1989. While still 18, he made the cut at the US Open finishing tied for 56th. And in 1992, he led after three rounds of the BellSouth Classic before shooting a final round 79.
In 1993, he completed his time at Georgia Tech University and headed for Q school. But he failed to make the grade and had to go into the second-tier Nike Tour. After one unsuccessful year, he finally came good in the second half of 1994 and earned the top-10 money list finish which finally sent him into the PGA Tour.
The wraparound Oakleys – worn to correct astigmatism and protect his sensitive eyes – became a trademark as well as a metaphor for his apparent desire to shut out the world. Duval made an immediate impact but didn’t have what it took to finish off tournaments. In almost three years on the big tour, he had failed to convert a 54-hole lead into victory five times and was runner-up no fewer than seven times.
One reason for the end of the ‘final day choke’ was an improved relationship with his mother and estranged father. He also started to make friends and had embarked upon a serious relationship with Julie McArthur. And he worked hard on his fitness, shedding the excess weight which had led to his cruel nickname of ‘The Penguin’ and leaving him with more energy on the Sunday.
Sure enough, he birdied the first extra hole to win the Michelob Classic in October 1997 and, like London buses, won his next two events as well. Then came his superb 1998 and the start of his ascent to the top of the world rankings.
When Duval’s body broke down, everything else started to collapse around him. At the 2002 Phoenix Open, he broke off his engagement to McArthur and pulled out of the tournament to return home to Florida. The injuries continued to mount and Duval suffered with depression before being diagnosed with vertigo in March 2003.
After a miserable couple of years, Duval met interior designer Susie Persichitte and the pair married in 2004. As well as Persichitte’s three children from a previous marriage, they had two more with Duval finding contentment in family life.
The belief never deserted him but he continued to struggle on the golf course. And then, out of nowhere, he played himself into contention at the 2009 US Open at Bethpage Black. Duval was in the top-five all week and finished tied for second, two strokes behind winner Lucas Glover. It was his first top-10 result for seven years.
While Duval hasn’t challenged again (yet) in a major, he did finally end his tournament drought in December 2016. Appropriately enough, it was in the PNC Father/Son Challenge with his stepson Nick Karavites. Afterwards he said, “This is as good as anything. It truly is. To be able to come out and compete in a professional event and win and have the whole family here, I’ll never forget it.”
Duval would have good reason to be bitter about the past – the childhood sadness and subsequent family breakdown, and the injuries which robbed him of the best years of his career. But by throwing himself into his family over his golf, he may just have found the happiness which had long eluded him.