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

David Duval's shaved Maltese sprang through the front doorway like a hyperprotective caddy.

"Bogey! No! Down!" said Duval.

Bogey? Not something more auspicious, like Eagle or Ace?

"Got and named while I was away," he said dryly, with a hint of a smile. Sleeping out back by the swing set and the vegetable garden and a practice green of synthetic turf was Oakley, a portly golden retriever named after the company whose sunglasses Duval still wears, even though his endorsement deal expired four years ago.

It was a busy midweek morning at the Duval family's sprawling stone-and-glass house in Cherry Hills Village, an affluent community south of downtown Denver. Duval's stepkids, Deano, Nick, and Shalene, and his nearly five-year-old son, Brady, were out of the house, but his wife, Susie, was arranging flowers in the kitchen. Their two-year-old daughter, Sienna, was helping the nanny whip up a batch of cookies.

"I don't understand why I'm considered such a tortured soul," Duval said as we sat down in his book-lined study. He was friendly, but not unguarded. Along one wall were five golf bags and a cluster of trophies displayed so unostentatiously that it was a good hour before I realized golf's hallowed Claret Jug was among them.

However puzzling to Duval himself, the tortured-soul motif is a staple of stories about him for a number of reasons, notably the childhood trauma that golf helped him forget. But the motif also reflects preconceptions people have about how a man ought to feel after falling from the pinnacle of his profession.

It's hard to think of an elite athlete in any sport who has tumbled as far as David Duval. For most of the past decade, he has been wandering in the wilderness, beating the bushes of the PGA Tour for the form he once had, or not playing at all. He has been plagued by a series of injuries to his back, his neck, his wrist. The early phase of his golf-course troubles coincided with romantic straits when a longtime engagement fell apart. For several months he took an antidepressant. At the Ford Championship in 2003, he was diagnosed with positional vertigo.

All the while, fans and writers posed the same question over and over again: "What's wrong with David Duval?" At one low point, he said to Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist whom Duval once hired for advice and coaching, "I just wish I could be anonymous again."

His woes began, he said, when a sprained fifth lumbar vertebra threw his back out in early 2000. His swing got out of whack as he tried to compensate for the injury. The great fairway splitter would stand on the tee not knowing whether his ball was going left or right. He consulted swing gurus, who suggested he change his stance or modify what's known in golf as his "strong" grip. He watched old videotapes of himself made by his coach at Georgia Tech. Sometimes his back was so tight he could do nothing but lie down on the floor. His Tour peers, who used to fear his game, looked at him with pity. When the gauntlet of the golf course was too frustrating, he escaped on his snowboard in Sun Valley, where he has a second home.

Valiante recalled a moment that seemed like the nadir of Duval's decade. It was a Saturday in May during the 2003 Memorial tournament in Dublin, Ohio. Duval played well enough Thursday and Friday to make the cut, and he was in the middle of a good round when cold rain halted play. Tournament officials did not call the players back to the clubhouse, and Duval stood out on the course for 46 minutes while his back tightened up. When play resumed at noon, he double-bogeyed and shot himself out of contention with a six-over-par 78. To Valiante the sight of him standing out in the rain said it all: David couldn't catch a break. It was as if the universe were bent on making him miserable.

By 2004 Duval had fallen to 434 in the world rankings. Of the 20 tournaments he entered in 2005, he made the cut in one, earning all of $7,630. He was winless in 2006; winless in 2007, playing on a medical exemption; and winless in 2008 and 2009, playing on the last of his lifetime earnings exemptions. This year, lacking a Tour card, he has been relying on the kindness of sponsors to get into fields.

"It gave me a lot of anger initially," he told me, speaking of his injuries and his struggles with the game. "I felt like I got cheated. I could always feel a golf shot in my hands – it's an innate thing – and I could feel it going away. It's easy for me, looking back, to recognize what was happening, but I didn't see it at the time."

Maybe even more significant than physical issues or love trouble was a kind of spiritual disenchantment. The game that Duval had played with a therapeutic ferocity since he was 12 years old began to lose its meaning. Where he had expected elation and fulfillment after winning his first major at the Open Championship in 2001, he instead found an empty, isolated feeling and the sense that his victory was almost fraudulent.

"When you work so hard," he recalled, "and have had so many near misses and then win, and you didn't play that well, it's like, 'Are you kidding? Are you really gonna do this to me?' It's not like I played bad, but of the tournaments I won, that's the one I played the worst in."

At his crowning moment, it dawned on him that golf was just a game. And, of course, only someone for whom golf was more than a game could be disillusioned to discover otherwise.