For most of last week's Tour Championship, the 1997 season refused to be neatly summed up. The PGA Tour's most important story lines were unresolved: Who would be the leading money winner? Who would be the player of the year? What would be the final pecking order among the top players? The whole plot was a tangled mess until David Duval sorted it out with his third win in a row.
Midway through the season the best bet in golf was that Masters champion Tiger Woods, who went over $1 million in earnings way back in May, would not only cruise to the money crown but also would be the player of the year. He almost let both titles slip away at Champions Golf Club in Houston, where the top 30 on the Tour's money list played for $4 million. With six holes to play on Sunday, Davis Love III held a two-stroke lead. If he could have held on, Love would have passed Woods on the money list and, with three victories and an edge in the popularity department, might have won player of the year honors in the vote by his peers.
Woods can thank Duval for scuttling that possible turn of events. Duval made a 40-foot putt for eagle on the par-5 13th hole to catch Love at 11 under par, and then, while Love was stumbling home with two bogeys to finish third, Duval scrambled for gutsy pars on the final two holes to shoot 68 and edge runner-up Jim Furyk by a stroke.
With wins in his last three starts, which have come over four weeks, the 26-year-old Duval has transformed himself in the public's eye. A month ago he was viewed as the best U.S. player not to make the Ryder Cup team, mainly because in his three years on the Tour he had finished second seven times. People were whispering, though, about the fact that he had never won. Now they're wondering when he will lose. If he should prevail in the opening event of the '98 season, the Mercedes Championships at Carlsbad, Calif., in January, Duval will become the first man since Jackie Burke Jr. in 1952 to win four Tour events in a row. Duval just might do it, if for no other reason than the hype is unlikely to get to him. On Sunday night someone evoked Byron Nelson's record 11-win streak of 1945 by asking Duval, "Three down and eight to go?" Puzzled, Duval answered, "For what?"
The other players have changed their opinion of Duval, too. "A lot of people talked about how he couldn't finish," says Love. "He's proved in the last month that he can and will be able to for a long time." What most impressed Love, who played in the group behind Duval in the final round, was how he handled adversity on the par-4 17th hole. Off the tee Duval pushed what he called a High Plains Drifter deep into trees. He pitched out 40 yards short of the green, wedged to within 12 feet from thick bermuda rough, then made the crucial putt. "That," said Love, "was an all-world up and down."
The putt was similar to ones Duval made last month to win playoffs at the Michelob Championship in Williamsburg, Va., and at the Disney Classic in Orlando. "I look forward to having those now," he says. "When I'm standing over the ball, it doesn't enter my mind that I'm going to miss."
Duval is careful not to overanalyze his success. He has lost more than 30 pounds as a result of a fitness regimen he began last year but is stronger and says he feels "more like an athlete." He has also taken a more conservative approach inside the ropes, minimizing the sorts of mistakes that in the past led to painful losses. His father, Bob, a rookie on the Senior tour, has another explanation. "He started thinking, My dad's going to pass me on the money list," he says. "I think that got him going." In fact, before David's first win of the streak, he led his dad in earnings by $171,857, with $616,308. His three victories more than tripled his winnings to $1.89 million. (He won $720,000 on Sunday.)
Money is always a hot topic at the Tour Championship. Coming into Houston, the only players who had a shot al wresting the money title from Woods were Love and Justin Leonard. Woods reportedly needed to top the money list to collect a $3 million bonus from Titleist, but during a poor second half of the season he had let Leonard and Love, winners of the British Open and the PGA, respectively, close the gap. "Tiger's mental game is his greatest strength, but as the year has gone on it has become a weakness," says Butch Harmon, Woods's swing coach. "He has been making bad shot selections, getting angry and impatient and putting with a poor attitude."
On Sunday, Woods played with resolve and shot 69, but on the 72nd green he missed a five-footer for par that would have locked up the money title. As Woods signed his card, Love had the lead, and Woods was hanging his head. An hour later he was celebrating Duval's victory—and his own. "The money title and player of the year were goals I set at the beginning of the year," Woods said. "When David won, it was pure excitement. That's not the way I wanted to come out on top, but it still means a lot."
Woods wound up winning a record $2,066,833 and became the first Tour player to make more than $2 million in a season (something Hale Irwin also accomplished this year on the Senior tour). Duval finished second on the money list, followed by Love ($1.64 million), Furyk ($1.62 million) and Leonard ($1.59 million). In all, 18 players won more than $1 million, twice as many as in any previous season. Perhaps more important, four of the top five this year are 27 or younger. (Love is the old man at 33.) "You look at the list, and it's all the studs of the year," says Duval, who not long ago would have been considered one of this season's duds.