Although there were no cracks apparent in his granite mask as he walked to the 17th tee in the final round of the Players Championship on Sunday, David Duval was nervous—more nervous, in fact, than he'd been while leading last year's Masters at the same point. He had plenty of reasons to be.
Duval was trying to join his dad, Bob, as the first father-son combination to win a PGA Tour and Senior PGA tour event on the same day. Yet the three-shot lead David had built through 13 holes had dwindled to one. He had hit only six of the first 16 greens in regulation and had made five bogeys on a course that for two days had challenged players with its nastiest possible combination of hairy rough, rock-hard greens and gusty winds. Finally, at the famous par-3 17th at the TPC at Sawgrass, he was staring at an island green for a shot that under final-round pressure is the scariest in tournament golf. A few minutes earlier Duval had heard the groans as the tee shot of his closest pursuer, Scott Gump, trickled over the railroad ties and into the water behind the green, leading to a double bogey. Earlier another challenger, Payne Stewart, had dunked two balls and taken a quintuple-bogey eight, falling from third place to 23rd.
Some 350 miles away in Milton, Fla., 52-year-old Bob Duval, gripping the trophy he had just received for winning the Emerald Coast Classic, turned away from a clubhouse television and stepped outside to sign autographs. "I don't want to watch this," he said of the Players telecast. "I know what that hole can do."
But 27-year-old David Duval knows what he can do, and nerves stopped being a problem for him 17 months ago when he won the Michelob at Kingsmill to start a rampage of 10 Tour victories in 33 starts. "I think you just learn to know what [nerves] feel like and accept them and kind of overcome them and move on," he would explain later. So on the hole he had seen terrorize the world's best players since he was 10 years old, Duval pulled up the memory of what he calls the best clutch shot he has ever seen: the final-round tee shot on 17 that Nick Price struck en route to the '93 Players tide. Then Duval pulled out a pitching wedge and with no hesitation made his typical controlled but aggressive swing.
As the ball soared over the watery expanse, there was something in the authority with which it had been struck that ended the suspense. True all the way, it carried its intended 140 yards, landed softly 15 feet short and left of the pin, and trickled down a slope until it stopped six feet below the hole.
Even for someone who had fired a final-round 59 to win the Bob Hope in January—as near a perfect round as golf has ever seen—this was the perfect shot on the perfect hole at the perfect time. A champion's shot. Duval made the birdie putt to take a two-stroke lead over Gump, and 15 minutes later he realized a bonanza that few golfers have ever reaped: Duval couldn't decide what pleased him more, winning near his hometown of Jacksonville (in Duval County, no less), or making father-son history.
With his third victory of the year, Duval joins Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson as the only players in the past 30 years to win at least three Tour events in three consecutive seasons, and his $900,000 first-place check boosted his season earnings to $2,148,300, only $442,731 less than his record total of last year. Duval also moved up to No. 1 in the World Ranking, ending Tiger Woods's 41-week tenure and setting up the most anticipated Masters showdown since Arnie and Jack were putting green jackets on each other.
The Players victory meant so much, in fact, that it almost broke the emotionless facade Duval has been building since childhood. When he pulled off the forbidding wraparound sunglasses and hoisted the trophy before a raucous crowd on the 18th green, his eyes were shiny. "Lots of hard work, lots of dreaming, lots of patience," he said with a slight catch in his throat. But he collected himself, and the moment passed.
Across the Florida panhandle, Bob was bawling. After being told that his son's ball was dry on 17, he returned to his seat in front of the television and watched David's victory march up 18. Tears rolled down Bob's face and his body shook, partly because the Emerald Coast victory was his first in the big time after 30 years as a club professional and also because he and his son had formed a special bond in the wake of what Bob called "a double whammy." When David was nine, his older brother, Brent, died from a blood disorder. In 1996 David's parents were divorced. The relationship between father and son endured the turmoil, and Bob has even benefited from a role reversal—David became a father figure of sorts. All of that made for a profound moment on Sunday.
The Duvals had played several practice rounds at the TPC Stadium Course the week before the Players, with David putting the wood to Bob in $10-a-hole matches, and later inserting the needle: "He didn't want to lose more than that." But in the course of the whippings, David bolstered Bob's confidence with praise and a demonstration of what David's peers are beginning to consider a playing demeanor as stone cold as that of Ben Hogan's. (Incidentally, Hogan was the last player before Duval to notch his first three Tour victories in consecutive appearances.) "Whether David plays good or bad, he stays pretty level," says Bob. "I'm more hyper. David has taught me how to stay patient. He basically told me nobody ever shot anybody on a golf course for making a bogey."