SI Vault
Gary Smith
April 12, 1999
That's what DAVID DUVAL finally learned after a childhood tragedy led him to shut out the world and drive himself to become the best golfer in the game.
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April 12, 1999

No Man Is An Island

That's what DAVID DUVAL finally learned after a childhood tragedy led him to shut out the world and drive himself to become the best golfer in the game.

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Six more weeks, this lasts. A fifth-place finish, a 14th, then another missed cut. Puggy. He has to see Puggy. The one who said he'd fall one day. Puggy looks at David's eyes, sees what almost no one else in the world can see: This is bad. Puggy opens his mouth, and the old song comes out, more fervent than ever, for now he knows David is listening. The world's not about you, David. Bring people along for the ride. At the end of it, relationships will be all you'll think about, not golf, not winning. For four hours Puggy talks. As they walk across the Georgia Tech campus, Rice, the athletic director, approaches. He greets Puggy, then turns and introduces himself to David.

David is dumbfounded. A first-team All-America four straight years...and the athletic director for all four of those years doesn't recognize him? Dammit, he'll have nothing to do with Georgia Tech, he'll pulverize another piece of his past, and doesn't this prove, once more and for all, the folly of looking anywhere except yourself for support, and that David is right and Puggy is wrong and....

So how in god's name does Puggy get David to the College Golf Fellowship, a Christian conference, a few days later, instead of that Nike tournament in South Dakota that David has to play in to start digging out of the hole? How does David emerge from that week of brotherhood, surrounded by three dozen people at meals and at discussions of love and letting go, with a firecracker string of top five finishes to finish eighth in earnings and gain entrance into the PGA?


He appeared before the world in 1995, wearing a shirt buttoned to the throat, a hat tugged low over his forehead and sunglasses that curved all the way back to meet his temples, frustrating even the onlooker who edged to one side to look into his eyes. Then came a goatee. The gallery didn't see people like this at country clubs. It parted instinctively, made a path for him. This is no come-to-Jesus tale. Everything with David was subterranean and slow.

Few mustered the courage to approach him and learn that the dark wraparound glasses were there to protect his sensitive eyes from the pollen, dust and glare that made them water and itch. Or learn of the delightful irony that it was Puggy, cringing over David's affliction during his senior year, who had handed him his first pair of wraparounds, and he had donned a second pair himself. Those who did approach David with questions were warned: I remember almost nothing about my past.

But why? Why did this man have to keep the hat and shades on when he walked off the 18th green? Why, everyone wondered, did he give the camera and the galleries almost nothing? A pant leg riffling in the wind, a small tightening of the lips around a chaw of tobacco, a blowing of the nose—those were the only bulletins from the front that a Duval correspondent could report. And a swing shorn of wasted motion, a clean and simple and ruthlessly efficient act. In his first three PGA events, he finished 14th, sixth and second—37 under par in his first 12 rounds, and everyone, intimidated by him or not, agreed: Look out.

Anesthesia had brought David to the ledge of greatness, to that circle of a few dozen men who were threats to win on the PGA Tour. What if that numbness, as Puggy insisted, was preventing him from taking the final step? What if it kept him pinned right there, on the ledge, the prize beneath his eyes to see and smell but never to touch? Then the media would begin asking about failure, about choking, rather than about his $881,436 in earnings, a rookie record, 11th best on the Tour in 1995, or about his 10th-place finish the following year. Then, because he couldn't permit anyone else to dictate how he felt, David would grow short with reporters, insisting that the near misses didn't disturb him. Then, of course, that overmuscular mind, the one that often still kept him awake half the night, the one that had blanked out so much anguish, would fall prey to his sport's most savage calculus—the 253.2 minutes of inaction that occurred around the 1.8 minutes of meaningful motion in an average PGA round—and squeeze the one free and natural interval of David's existence, the 1.5 seconds of his swing. Then it would be clear once more what a powerful tide David Duval was walking against.

That's just what happened for two years, 10 months and 11 days, through five frittered final-day leads, through seven runner-up and four third-place finishes that earned David nicknames such as Sultan of Second and headlines such as BRIDESMAID AGAIN. At least, that's what everyone saw. But quietly, behind the wall, sometimes without David even knowing it, something was stirring. Finally, after a year of silence and stewing over his parents' divorce and the new woman in his father's life, David was talking to Bobby again, clearing the air by caddying in his dad's debut on the Senior tour in 1996. Finally he was beginning to face his mother's problems, nudging her into an alcohol rehabilitation center, beginning to talk a little about pieces of the past that he had simply fogged out.

Finally he was widening his circle of friends, making new ones who were decades older than he and wouldn't be as likely to look for something from him. He'd be a student, pick their minds.

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