Over the years the man who fell as low as 1,054 in the world rankings endeared himself to golf fans in a way he never had when he was number one. When Duval began to play better, showing flashes of his old form with an occasional brilliant round, he tantalized the golf world with the idea of a Hollywood ending – never more so than last year. The 2009 U.S. Open will be remembered not for the steely play of eventual champion Lucas Glover, but for the resurrection of David Duval, who arrived at golf's toughest test ranked 882 in the world and nearly won.
In some ways that performance can be traced back to an epiphany eight years ago at the 2002 Phoenix Open. Duval was 31, mired in his slump and not feeling good about himself. He was unhappily engaged to a woman he'd been dating since 1993. "I didn't think I had much to offer," he said. And then into his head swam a radical idea: I'm allowed to be happy. He broke off the relationship. After a late-night conversation in his room with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, whom he'd known since he was a teenager, Duval withdrew from the tournament and went home to Jacksonville.
A year and a half later, in August of 2003, Duval was competing in the International, a now defunct tournament 15 miles south of Denver. His monastic habit was to play his round at the club, eat at the club, and retire to his room at the club with a book. Gio Valiante suggested they drive into the city for dinner.
They ended up at a popular south Denver watering hole called the Cherry Creek Grill. Duval wasn't looking for a girlfriend at the time, but he was struck by a woman standing with two friends at the bar. He was too timid to approach her, but Valiante, as one might expect of the author of a book called Fearless Golf, was not. Introductions were made. Duval managed a few minutes of conversation with Susie Persichitte, an interior designer with three kids from a previous marriage.
"You scooted!" he says to her now when she comes into the study to ask if we want anything to drink.
She rolls her eyes. "I wasn't there half an hour, and you said, 'Can you have dinner?'"
Seven months later they were married.
Family life has so enthralled Duval that he doesn't like leaving to play golf. But family life has also given him a new incentive to work on his game: He wants to show his wife and kids the player that he used to be.
Susie Duval made us panini. Later, Duval's young son, Brady, led me on a tour of his room and the kids' play area, pointing out his stuffed horse, Pete, and stuffed tiger, Petey, and his sister Sienna's stuffed horse, whose name he said was Jealous. Standing in Brady's room, it was hard not to think of Duval's own boyhood. He had told me he wanted to write an autobiography. But wouldn't an autobiographer have to delve into his past? Wouldn't he have to wonder whether the trauma of the brother who died had something to do with how long it took the brother who survived to realize he was allowed to be happy? And surely Duval's resolve to be a great father reflected the dissolution of his childhood home, just as the extraordinary life he'd created as a top athlete was bound up in the ordinary life he'd had before it all fell apart.
There was a simple cross in the kids' playroom and plain silver crosses scattered on shelves around the house. When we had resettled in the dining room, I asked Duval about his religious convictions. He said it was a subject that he preferred remain private, but he did believe that some transcendent force, as he put it in an odd and telling phrase, had "meddled" with the universe and enabled his and Susie's paths to cross that August night.
"It's easy to love your wife and kids, but I cherish Susie; I cherish my kids. If it wasn't for Susie and these kids, I would have stopped playing golf a few years ago. It's Susie and the kids who taught me that what I am is not what I do; it's Susie and the kids who showed me that I don't have to be golf. But golf is still so ingrained in my psyche, it takes a conscious effort for me to separate 'David' from 'golf.'"
"At this point what does golf give you?"
"Tremendous joy," he said, without a moment's hesitation.
Having a family of his own had opened his eyes to the anguish of his parents. "I thought I had a handle on what it was like to lose a child," he said. "I had no idea." But being better able to gauge the depth of his father's heartbreak had also made it harder for him to understand how his father could have left, and it was his mother's example that spoke to him most deeply now.
"She did everything for us," he said. "Her life was about sacrifice. I'm not sure I could have told you what I learned from her before she died, but now I think what I learned is compassion. And love of one's family. Love of one's spouse."
He looked up with strangely boyish, undefended eyes.
"I'm a nice person," he said out of the blue. "It just took me a long time to let people know it."
I wondered if he had been provoked by the memory of old criticism, or the way he acted when he was number one, carrying himself with what he regretted now as an air of entitlement. Meeting his wife and witnessing the birth of his children implied that Fortune was not entirely punitive. There was providence out there as well as deprivation, a benevolence running counter to the general drift of his bad bounces and unlucky breaks, of homes unraveling, brothers dying. Perhaps Duval had seen the limits of his golfer's self-sufficiency and was rethinking the brash young egotist he'd been a lifetime ago, back when he embraced Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, with its disdain for people who subordinate themselves to the needs of others and its contempt for the altruism that, as a parent, he had come to honor as among the greatest of his mother's virtues.
Why had it taken him so long to let people know the man behind the mask?
"Maturity," he said. "Growing up. Realizing that one thing doesn't come at the expense of another."