Precisely what it takes to be a tournament winner is one of the biggest mysteries in golf, which is why we've been so fascinated with David Duval. The 25-year-old Duval has unmistakable talent, blending power and touch with a knack for affixing his name to leader boards. Yet in his first 92 Tour events Duval never won.
Seven second-place finishes in his three seasons on Tour only undermined Duval, costing him a scat on the starship that has propelled the game's elite twentysomethings—Ernie Els, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods—into a singular orbit. Duval was instead known as the most gifted player left off the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Despite all that game and a 4-0 record in last year's Presidents Cup, the four-time All-America at Georgia Tech had become the wunderkind who didn't have the head, the heart, the backbone or the stomach (you pick the body part) to win.
In less than a fortnight, though, Duval has come up with whatever was missing. Two weeks ago he broke through at the Michelob Championship, and by defeating Dan Foreman in a playoff at the Walt Disney World/ Oldsmobile Golf Classic on Sunday in Orlando, Duval is suddenly a two-time winner. The player who couldn't seem to handle the heat is now the first one on Tour to win consecutive tournaments in sudden death.
Naturally, mystery buffs want to know why. Surely Duval had undergone an epiphany, a visitation, some aha! that turned him from patsy to predator. Not really. To the best of his knowledge, Duval says, he has played pretty much the same game, although he has gotten a few more breaks and someone else hasn't passed him with a hot final round. "I used to know I could do it, but I still always tried to do it," he says. "People want to hear something more dramatic, but that's all there is."
We told you it's a mystery. What isn't is that Duval, not Leonard, Mickelson or Woods, is now the hottest U.S. golfer and the favorite to win the $720,000 first prize at the season-ending Tour Championship next week in Houston. If Duval does win, he will have turned a year in which he was languishing as a footnote into a nearly $2 million success story.
Such a scenario shouldn't come as a surprise. As the close finishes and late fades mounted, the line on Duval was that once he finally prevailed, the victories would come in bunches. In the last few months, however, as Woods, Els and Leonard won majors and Mickelson gained his 12th Tour title, that presumption was being questioned. Rather than kicking into overdrive to join the pacesetters, Duval got stuck in second. He seemed primed last February when a third-round 62 at Pebble Beach, which included a record 28 on the front nine, gave him a three-stroke lead going into Sunday, but a closing 71 left him a stroke behind winner Mark O'Meara and tied with Woods. Five weeks later Duval led at Doral after 54 holes, only to finish fourth. That was followed by a long stretch of mediocre play, punctuated by a closing 72 in Atlanta, where he came in second yet again. "At Atlanta, I started doubting myself," he admits.
Still, Duval, who was seventh on the Ryder Cup points list at midseason, seemed to be a lock to qualify for the team. Then, in another swoon, he failed to earn a point in the 10 tournaments ending with the PGA and drifted all the way to 16th. Even though he went the extra mile and auditioned for Tom Kite during a sparsely attended U.S. reconnaissance mission to Valderrama in July, Kite didn't make Duval one of his two captain's picks, opting instead for Fred Couples, who was 17th on the list, and Lee Janzen (15th). The reason given was that Duval had no Ryder Cup experience. The truth is that he was passed over because he hadn't won. Rather than being considered a champion in the making, Duval was perceived as someone who couldn't get the job done.
Such a setback might have damaged the confidence of a less self-possessed player, but Duval stayed the course. He knew part of his problem stemmed from the dramatic changes in his physique brought on by the fitness regimen he had begun before the 1996 season. From a high of 226 pounds, the 6-foot Duval (his 29-inch inseam earned him the nickname Penguin at Georgia Tech) leveled off at a lithe 180, his waistline shrinking from size 38 to 32. Duval's real goal has been to become stronger, which he has achieved through a weightlifting program that's Herculean for a golfer. Though he says he has never maxed out, Duval can do five sets of bench presses with 175 pounds and sometimes works with 75-pound dumbbells. (Coincidently or not, Woods adheres to a similar workout.) The short-term downside, however, was that Duval lost some of the touch that is crucial to scoring. "I got hammer hands for a while," he says, "and a lot of people wondered if lifting wasn't a dumb move."
Duval also kept reminding himself that at every level of competition—beginning with youth golf, which culminated with his victory in the '89 U.S. Junior—he has never been a quick study. After turning pro in 1993, Duval failed at the Q school and had to play on the Nike tour, where in his first year he didn't earn enough money to graduate to the PGA Tour. That steeled him for whatever might happen later on. "David knows from experience that he does his best when things are familiar," says his girlfriend of four years, Julie McArthur. "Routine and comfort help him focus."
Although the biggest influence on Duval's game has been his father, Bob, who's completing a successful rookie season on the Senior tour, his best counsel has come from sports psychologist Bob Rotella. With Duval, Rotella has preached patience. "I've tried to remind him that the more times he has come close, the closer he is to winning," Rotella says. "Each occasion was a time to believe more, not less. And that when it happened, he would look back and say, 'Is that all it was?' "