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Keeping a Low Profile
Jaime Diaz
February 09, 1998
There's reason David Duval has been reluctant to let anyone get too close
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February 09, 1998

Keeping A Low Profile

There's reason David Duval has been reluctant to let anyone get too close

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David Duval has something Tiger Woods probably wishes he had: an aura that unnerves people, that makes them back off. Woods needs bodyguards to clear a path to precious privacy. The 26-year-old Duval, with his buzz cut, reflective wraparound sunglasses, prickly goatee, snuff-packed lower lip and imposing physique, keeps autograph seekers at arm's length by the force field of his attitude. Woods is magnetic. Ernie Els, Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson are red-cheeked and lovable. Duval, even though he signs and poses for anyone who dares ask, is impenetrable.

At Georgia Tech, Duval was a pudgy 220 pounds—40 more than his current weight—yet his teammates called him Rock. The name mostly described his game but also covered the granite mien and gravelly grumbles reserved for strangers who had the temerity to approach him. Last fall, when he ended the season with victories in three straight starts—in the Michelob Championship, the Disney and the Tour Championship—Duval even stonewalled stardom. He maintained that he had no idea why, after three years, seven second-place finishes and plenty of other disappointing Sundays, he was suddenly the most proficient closer in the game. Personal questions, as usual, were met with controlling pauses and inconclusive answers. Duval is keenly aware of how he is perceived, and not overly troubled by that. "It's like there should be this asterisk by my name," he says. "Down at the bottom of the page it would say, 'Difficult to get to know. Easy to misunderstand.' "

The inaccessibility has deep roots. Considering the blows that Duval absorbed growing up, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he assumes a peekaboo stance when dealing with the outside world. When Duval was nine, bone marrow was extracted from his hips in an unsuccessful attempt to save the life of his 12-year-old brother, Brent, who had been stricken with aplastic anemia, a blood disorder. The trauma of losing their first child ravaged the marriage of Bob and Diane Duval, and David spent his adolescence in a dysfunctional family. The devastating effect that separation and a 1996 divorce had on his mother unsettled Duval. His father's subsequent remarriage compounded the pain. In the face of so much turmoil, Duval withdrew into himself. Rock is also an island.

"What is, is," says Duval. Then he unexpectedly elaborates. "My brother died, my parents divorced...blah, blah, blah. There's nothing I can do about it. Maybe my mechanism has been not to analyze it because it would only hinder me from going on. The bottom line is, I don't believe you are given more than you can handle. You have to find a way to cope. You can level your own playing field by understanding that life only becomes fair when you realize it's unfair. I don't wonder about or want to share why I am the way I am. I'm not saying my way is right. It might turn off a lot of people. But it's the way I found that suits me."

It is not the way of his father. A former teammate of Hubert Green's at Florida State and then a club pro for 28 years, Bob Duval was a rookie on the Senior tour last year and in his own way as big a success as his son. Whereas David is wary and private, Bob (Bobby to his friends) is talkative, friendly and open. "I can party with the best of them," says Bob. David, on the other hand, enjoys spending an evening engrossed in a book. Two years ago he read 31 books while playing on the Tour. Last year, he read nearly 20, including the voluminous Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. Naturally, David downplays any intellectual bent. "I can work the buttons on a remote control pretty good, too," he says dismissively.

On the golf course Bob and David are also a study in contrasts. Bob is dark-skinned and stout, Trevinoesque in his banter and bouncy body language. David is pale and lean, an expressionless figure whose very walk is spare in its lack of motion. "We're opposites," says David. "My dad looks like there's no place in the world he'd rather be. I always look like I'm ill."

Some of the differences between the Duvals' demeanors can be attributed to perspective. At 51, Bob is having the time of his life. Last season he overcame heavy odds to pull himself from Monday-qualifier status to 28th ($555,601) on the money list, guaranteeing a full exemption this year. He begins 1998 intent on gaining his first win and savoring the hard-earned gravy that's part of playing on the Senior tour. "I'm getting the chance to do what I love," he said before placing 19th in last week's Royal Caribbean Classic. "I want it to last as long as possible."

David, because of his talent and drive, is more ambitious. His run at the end of last season and solid start this year—he's sixth on the money list—show that he has the power, accuracy and feel to be one of the top players in the game. "In terms of being long and straight, Duval's the best driver of the ball out here," says Mark Calcavecchia. "From where he's hitting his second shots, every golf course is easy, and his short game is as good as his long game."

"I've always felt David's strongest asset as a golfer is his mind," says his father. "He's bright, a hell of a lot brighter than I am. I used to get on him for not spending enough time studying, but he always brought home A's and B's. It turns out he only has to read something once and he's got it. I'm sure he could've gotten straight A's if he'd tried."

When it comes to analyzing personal issues, though, that mind is blocked, intentionally or otherwise. Asked if the family crisis is what made him different from his father, he quickly squelches the discussion. "I don't characterize things like that," he says. "I try to be a doer, not a talker. People tend to talk too much." Questions, especially in bunches, make him uncomfortable—perhaps because he learned so early that sometimes there are no answers.

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