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

It's hard to reflect on the seminal tragedy of David Duval's boyhood and not think that however much golf was the road to joy in his young life, it was also the road out from grief and unwarranted guilt; that when he was hammering out a hard, nothing-can-hurt-me identity in the sanctuary of the practice range, he was also burying an old one, his mastery of a golf ball compensating for the sadness and confusion of a family fractured by the sudden death of a child.

Duval grew up in the Old Ortega neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida, the middle kid – three years younger than his brother, Brent, and five years older than his sister, Deirdre. His mother, Diane Poole Duval, worked as a secretary. His father, Bob Duval, once a talented junior golfer (and later a winner on the Champions Tour), supported the family as the head pro at nearby Timuquana Country Club.

Brent and David went to Catholic mass together on Sundays, and then they would head out on skateboards or bikes and be gone all day. They fished, they flew kites; they hunted frogs and snakes and turtles. Both boys loved sports, especially baseball. With their father's tutelage and encouragement, they took up golf with cut-down clubs. Brent showed a talent for the game, playing in father-son tournaments.

But in the fall of 1980, 12-year-old Brent began to look pale and to complain of fatigue. His parents thought he had a stubborn flu. During the Christmas break, he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, a lethal disease in which bone marrow stops making the stem cells that generate infection-fighting blood cells. His only hope was a bone-marrow transplant from a compatible donor – likely David.

Bob, Diane, and the boys drove 18 hours to the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. The first two biopsies of David's marrow, which would ascertain its compatibility, were performed without anesthetic. David bore up bravely until the augur bit the bone, and then he screamed and writhed as his father and a nurse held him down. When the needle was drawn, the doctor turned to the other hip. David was given general anesthesia for the four subsequent punctures. He flew home with his maternal grandfather while Brent underwent radiation in preparation for the marrow transplant.

For a few weeks, it looked like the family had gotten a miracle. Brent's color and energy came back. The doctors said he was progressing well enough for his parents to make plans to take him home. Then fever. Vomiting. Further tests: Brent's body was rejecting David's tissue. There was nothing the doctors could do; nothing for Bob and Diane to do but wait by their son's side for the end to come. They brought David back to Cleveland to say goodbye. At the sight of the bald, wasted boy lying in a welter of tubes, David cried, "That's not Brent! That's not my brother!" and fled from the room.

On May 17, 1981 – less than five months after the disease was discovered – Brent died.

His Little League teammates carried his coffin at the funeral in Jacksonville. David endured stoically until a few weeks later, when, blaming himself for the failed marrow transplant, he burst into sobs and cried out, "I killed him! I killed him!" Diane kept a large picture of Brent in the front hall, spoke about him in the present tense, and tried to preserve his room as it had been the day he left. She fell away from the Catholic church and into alcoholism. Bob Duval also looked for solace in a bottle, and about a year later, in a decision that confounded his surviving son, left the home. He returned after about a year, then left for good and eventually remarried. When Diane died in July 2007, at 60 years old, she was buried beside the child she never stopped mourning.

Two years after Brent's death, when David was 11, he threw himself into golf, reporting to the range at his father's club every day after school. He could stand for hours in a bunker practicing trap shots. His father gave him tips about his shoulder turn and takeaway, passing along wisdom from David's club-pro grandfather, Henry "Hap" Duval. "Play what's in front of you, David. Your score is just a succession of numbers. Don't add them up until the end. Don't dwell on the past." Advice that kept the boy's focus trained on the present and taught him an emotional discipline that was likely to have been as useful to David the bereaved brother as it was to David the gifted junior golfer.

With his sights set on the PGA Tour, Duval honed his game: untold hours on the range, hitting under trees, over trees, between trees; untold hours shaping irons, rehearsing chips; untold hours in the pro shop, practicing with putters. In 1989, in his senior year at the Episcopal High School of Jacksonville, he came in second in the state championship. Later that summer he would win the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.

Is it any wonder he embraced a sport that, for all its lore and record-keeping, in competition has no use for the past – whose practitioners aim to dwell in a perpetual present, ideally so absorbed they don't know the score until they add the numbers up at the end?

Adding it all up – that was the tricky part for Duval. Over the years he's been asked often about the impact of his brother's death and his parents' divorce. He is not a man to delve into his own history, and he's bemused that family, friends, coaches, and journalists suppose they understand something about him that he does not.

"I'm sure psychologists would love to study me," Duval said to me with a knowing laugh. "I don't analyze myself. My childhood is just what I dealt with. Not everybody loses a sibling, but a lot do. Not everybody goes through a divorce, but half do. My experiences are not that dissimilar from a lot of other people's. I don't consciously feel like I have emotional scars."

"Do you think the past shaped you?" I asked.

"Who knows? What's the purpose of revisiting it? I'm sure it shaped me, but I'm not sure how."