David Duval can't help it. He stands out. Wraparound sunglasses. A bouncy, blond wedge cut. Shirts with the top button fastened. But what really sets Duval apart is summed up in his nickname, Rock. From the short, powerful legs on his six-foot, 200-pound-plus frame to the contact he makes with a long iron to his granite resolve while contemplating his next shot, everything about the way the 23-year-old Duval plays golf suggests the solidity of a boulder. Throw in a record that includes a U.S. Junior Amateur championship and four first-team All-America selections while at Georgia Tech, as well as a penchant for slow play, a disquieting directness and a self-possession that has been taken for arrogance and—attribute for attribute—Duval has more in common with the young Jack Nicklaus than anyone since the original.
Fortunately for Duval, the cursed title of the Next Nicklaus is currently being lugged around by Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, having been bequeathed to and fumbled by talents ranging from Eddie Pearce to Greg Norman. Also, Duval forfeited his claim by committing the very un-Nicklausian blunder of flaming out at the PGA Tour's qualifying school at the end of 1993, leading to a season on the Nike Tour.
This brush with failure might have been the best thing that ever happened to Duval's golf career. He spent 1994 earning an exemption to the big Tour. This year, unburdened of much of the baggage from his vaunted reputation, Duval is showing precisely why it was never undeserved. With his second-place finish to Kenny Perry on Sunday at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Bermuda Dunes, Calif., Duval now has two runner-up finishes and a tie for sixth in five Tour events this year. His $342,121 in winnings ranks him second on the money list.
Duval very nearly got his first victory at the Hope, but after making three birdies on the front nine of the fifth and final round to get within a shot of Perry, he couldn't convert another until the 90th hole. He finished one stroke back with a 24-under-par 336 and afterward pronounced himself "pleased" but not "extremely pleased." The young man knows he can do better.
Nonetheless, Duval's success has been enough to trigger golf's compulsion to anoint its wunderkind. It's a practice as old as young Bobby Jones, but it carries a particular urgency these days. Golf used to routinely produce stars in their early 20's. Now there are hardly any, particularly in the American game.
Consider that in this decade only Mickelson, Els, José María Olazábal and Robert Gamez have won on the Tour before their 25th birthday. And among current members, only Duval, Jim Furyk, 24, Justin Leonard, 22, and Joe Acosta Jr., 21, have a chance to join that club.
Until relatively recently, winning before the age of 25 was no special feat. The alphabetical list of still-active Tour players who did so in the 1970s and '80s begins with Clampett, ends with Watson and includes 25 other names in between. In addition to players such as Crenshaw, Strange and Wadkins, the list includes secondary figures such as David Edwards, Rick Fehr, Gary Hallberg and Gene Sauers. Add a whole bunch of no-longer-active players such as Forest Fezler, Tim Norris, Sam Randolph, Jack Renner, Ron Streck and Fred Wadsworth, and it's clear that winning young was once no big deal.
But now it is. Players joining the PGA Tour are getting older and older. Top college golfers used to go straight from school to the Tour by the age of 22, but that transition is almost unheard of today. In the '90s the only players to have accomplished it are Gamez, Mickelson, Dudley Hart, Jimmy Johnston and, this year, Leonard and Acosta.
Today the average age of PGA Tour rookies is more like 27. The reasons are basic. As the ever-growing game has developed more good players, the once seemingly vast PGA Tour has become a smaller and smaller arena. Because the Tour can accommodate only about 200 competitors a year, secondary tours have expanded all over the world. At the same time, with the success of the Senior tour, older members of the PGA Tour are keeping their games competitive well into their 40's, further reducing the turnover.
The average PGA Tour rookie these days has played on mini-tours, foreign tours and probably the Nike Tour. That cycle usually takes at least five years. It also generally includes a few unsuccessful stabs at the qualifying school, which each year is filled with more seasoned players.