On Friday, March 5, during Round 2 of the Honda Classic, David Duval's father, Bob, was standing halfway down the fairway of the 217-yard, par-3 fifth, squinting at the tee where his son was about to hit. David had started his round on the back nine of the Champion course at PGA National and was already four over par. Unaware that Duval relatives were nearby, a local wiseacre named Stefan Clark shouted to the small clutch of spectators: "A dollar says Duval misses the green!"
"I'll take some of that!" said Bob Duval.
The little gallery peered back at the tee as Duval swung an iron. His ball flew high and straight and dropped softly on the table, 25 feet above the pin.
Clark grimaced and peeled a dollar off a wad of bills.
"That's okay," said Bob Duval, refusing the money. "Just tell 'em you got beat by his dad."
"I would have asked for odds if I had known I was betting against his father."
Bob Duval laughed.
"Is he coming back?" Clark asked.
"He's starting to play better," said Bob.
And indeed, during Thursday's round, Duval, in black pants and an off-white windbreaker, started out like it was 1999. Despite the cold wind, the 7:26 am tee time, and his having stayed up until 3 am the night before talking with his father and his father-in-law, Joe Cipri, he was one under after five holes. But at the par-4 sixth, he pulled his drive left into a lake and bogeyed. Two holes later, a 3-wood left and a missed nine-footer for par. At the ninth hole, a double bogey. On the par-4 10th, his drive went right; he was stymied behind a tree. Trying to punch out, he did something you almost never see on the PGA Tour: He whiffed. A triple bogey. That was that. The next day he posted a 76 to go with Thursday's five-over-par 75 and missed the cut by a mile.
"It's a hard course," Duval told me later. "I played okay; I just hit a couple bad spots. Even the second day, I thought, 'I hit the ball pretty good – how did I shoot six over par?'"
Duval's best result so far this year was his second-place finish at the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in February. Was the struggle to win now, at 38, different from campaigning for his first victory, when he broke onto the PGA Tour in 1995, at age 23?
"In the end, they're fundamentally the same," he said. "But you're talking about an entirely different player and person, and comparing them is a fool's errand. The feeling now is different. I can feel people pulling for me. It's flattering. I'm constantly asked, 'Why do you think they're pulling for you?' I think it goes back to being a stand-up guy, an honest person who has gone through great struggles and is still working and practicing, not quitting. I've had some awful days where it takes a lot of mental will to go play golf. I shot a 62 at Pebble Beach once. Six, seven years later, I shot an 85. What did I do after that? I teed it up the next day."
His performances at the U.S. Open last year and at the AT&T in February show real progress, but Duval is still missing a high percentage of cuts and won't be playing with the hallmark consistency of his heyday until he routinely finds the fairway. Sometimes his father sees tension in his hands, and in minor tournaments Duval seems to lose focus; in majors it's easier to focus, he said, because "you're playing for history." But he missed the cut in April at the Masters, too.
He looked forward to the U.S. Open this June, the championship he coveted most. He expected to win again soon on the PGA Tour, he said. "I'm preparing to do it. Some of the stuff I was doing at the Honda was preparation work for the U.S. Open. Tinkering with clubs, tinkering with wedges. Mentally I'm thinking about my name on the leaderboard."
He had learned from his years in the wilderness that nothing was more important to a golfer than confidence. Confidence was what enabled him to dominate the best players in the world. What he now knew was that confidence had to be protected and nurtured. He'd been rebuilding his confidence; it still wasn't where it needed to be, he said, but it was almost there, like his game. Maybe it was his game. As if to demonstrate how far along the reconstruction project was, he said, "I think I am one of the 10 or 20 best golfers in the world."
The unsentimental numbers of the money list and the world rankings would beg to differ. Maybe he was just psyching himself up, worried that what made him great was gone. If so, more power to him. Maybe he was just whistling to get past his graveyards. God help him with that. The more he spoke of confidence, the more elusive it seemed, and I had to look the word up before it slipped its moorings completely. Confidence: the belief in one's self and one's abilities. The enchanted stuff of an ancient game, and so absurdly easy to come by when you're young and don't know who you are.