What the Hell Happened to David Duval?
Duval in his Denver home with his wife, Susie, and four of their five children.
Credit: Gregg Segal

I. SLOWLY AND ALL AT ONCE

There aren't many people in his galleries anymore, and fewer still along the ropes who know what his game was like when he was splitting fairways, the cocky master of laser-guided irons and magic on the greens. That was a lifetime ago, he often says, as if the wised-up mortal man of 38 with five kids had nothing to do with that numbed prodigy of a dozen years ago whose obsession with controlling the flight of a golf ball – for all the joy it offered and the fortune it brought – also seemed freighted with what was painfully beyond his power to control outside the ropes.

"David, David! Mr. Duval! Over here! Please!"

Autograph hounds were brandishing visors and balls and pictures of him in his prime as he moved toward the first tee, where four nervous amateurs awaited the start of their Pro-Am round at the Honda Classic. It was the first week of March; a cold wind was rattling the palms on the Champion course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Duval, in a blue shell and black trousers, stopped at the rope line and scribbled his name on some old magazine covers bearing images of the person he used to be.

"Good luck, David!" a man shouted as the Pro-Am party set off.

If the thin crowd that tagged along didn't know his game, they did know the outline of his story: his rapid emergence on the PGA Tour, a fixture in the mix on Sundays, the player who might have won the Masters four years in a row but for the sort of breaks that make you appreciate golf's cruelty. When Duval had a good round going, he wasn't afraid to try for a great one. In one incandescent period from the end of 1997 to early 1999, he won 11 of 34 tournaments, including a come-from-behind victory at the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, where he eagled the last hole for a total score of 59 and one of the most sublime rounds ever carded in the history of the game.

"David Duval is On Fire" read the cover of the April 12, 1999, Sports Illustrated, showing the new star in his wraparound sunglasses, blowing the smoke off a sizzling midiron. By then the world rankings had made official what had been obvious for months: It was no longer Tiger Woods who was the number one player in the world. It was Duval, the four-time All-American from Georgia Tech with the hidden eyes and the fluid, homegrown swing that left him peering out over his right shoulder, his back in a twist, hands hoisted up around the side of his head as if he were trying to open a locket at the nape of his neck.

As much as Duval relished being the best, he wasn't born for the showmanship of being number one. He didn't smile easily like Tiger, didn't play to crowds with uppercuts and primal screams. His three fist pumps and a hand smack after the immortal 59 were the most extravagant display of emotion most fans had ever seen from him.

He was as composed in adversity as in triumph. His signature Oakley shades, worn to correct astigmatism and protect his sensitive eyes, seemed symbolic of a desire to keep the world at bay, a reluctance to be seen. His shyness and social anxiety came across as callow self-absorption or a lack of empathy. He was suspicious of people who wanted his opinion just because he had a one beside his name. Unlike Woods, who in interviews had perfected the art of talking without saying anything, Duval spoke his mind, sometimes with a brutal lack of tact. He was candid and cerebral one moment, prickly and aloof the next.

He was the sort of golfer it was easier to admire than to love. He didn't want your heart. Few fans mourned when his approach shot found the bunker on the Road Hole at St. Andrews in 2000 and he foundered in sand, taking four shots to get out and effectively ceding the Open Championship to Woods, the people's choice. Duval won only once that year, and only once on the Tour the next year, capturing the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. That November in 2001, on his 30th birthday, he won the Dunlop Phoenix championship on the Japan tour.

And that was it.

Slowly and all at once, the way people lose fortunes or love, he lost his game.