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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Finally he was building a long-term relationship with a woman, a pharmacist from Atlanta named Julie McArthur, five years his elder and full of intuition. Scared the hell out of him, commitment did. Just making dinner plans with friends, David would leave himself a loophole. Finally, when Julie began traveling with him, David had someone besides Puggy and Rotella, the sports psychologist from his college days who still intersected with him once a month on the road, chorusing the message: Widen the path, don't narrow it. Someone who let him brood behind his wall for a while, but only for a while, someone who could tease him. Someone who saw the moments when all that buried softness burst free—over lost dogs on the roadside whose owners he had to track down, over collection jars for children with, life-threatening diseases, into which he was suddenly emptying his wallet of $100 bills—and who loved him for it.

Finally, too, with a change of diet and a grueling exercise regimen, David was shedding those 40 pounds, gaining muscle and flexibility that created an even longer swing and more stamina for a Sunday's last nine. One by one he was eliminating all the obstacles he had strewn in his own path, the ones that his narrowed eyes had never seen. Until just one remained.

No one except Julie and Puggy and Rotella, during that long wait on the ledge, glimpsed all the panting and clenching—"Like delivering a 20-pound baby," Puggy described David's straining for that first win. When it came, on the first sudden-death playoff hole of the Michelob Classic on Oct. 12,1997, it felt remarkably like Puggy had said it would. David let go, got out of his own way, and there it was, a PGA victory.

Wait...twins! Another victory, the next week, at the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic. Triplets! A third win, in the very next event he entered, the Tour Championship.

He began actually spending leisure time with other players. He began walking away from the sport for a week or two, not touching a club—how many pros could bear that?—and heading to Idaho. There he stood on powdered mountains with a snowboard beneath his arm and stared; stood waist-deep in gin-clear mountain streams with a fly rod in his hand and looked. He caught fish, but they had to go right back in the water. When he practiced he would fish a pond on the TPC course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., near his house in Jacksonville Beach, for two hours, lay the rod down and pick up a club, hit chip shots for 20 minutes, exchange the club for the rod again, find another pond to sit beside for a couple of hours more, then maybe do a little putting. What he needed to practice was remembering what he already knew, deep down, as well as anyone on the Tour: that golf's a game, not life and death.

Now came the next hurdle, the part he had never inspected carefully when he lay in bed as a boy staring at Brent's Lamborghini poster: celebrity. It walloped him when he learned that the autographed hat he had sent to a dying 30-year-old man in Atlanta meant so much to him that the man was buried with it. "Think of the impact I can have," he would say. "If I'd known it meant that much, I'd have flown there and visited him before he died. I have a responsibility."

To the relief of his agent, Charley Moore, he began removing his sunglasses as he walked off the course, sometimes even handing them to children, and looking cameras and reporters in the eye. It was so much easier now that they were asking him if he was the best golfer in the world instead of why he couldn't win. He gave their questions thoughtful, deliberate replies sprinkled with the deadpan wit his close friends relished, with words no other golfer used, plucked from the pocket dictionary he carried on the road. It was refreshing, writers found, to speak to a man who had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who cherished all 20 volumes, all 21,730 pages, of his Oxford English Dictionary, who could picture himself just walking away from golf one day, never playing on the Senior tour, and ending up in a bookstore-café that he would own, or a backwoods bait-and-tackle shop.

Who could know for sure what would happen if success deserted him? He still could be crustacean. He still could starch a fan who pressed too close, still could answer an afternoon phone call with a voice so dead that callers would ask, "Did I wake you up?" He still could sit to eat at a country club restaurant table right next to Julie's and make good on her prediction to her dining partner that he wouldn't notice her. His heart still leaned toward Roark's truth, but his logic couldn't deny Puggy's truth, and slowly he was coming to see that a rich life integrated both of them. Because that was David, honest to god, spelling out YMCA with his arms on the stage last year at Fuzzy Zoeller's party near Louisville, getting heaved into the pool and ending up, still soaked, in a bar where he stayed almost till dawn. That was David buying a Lucite crucifix for Puggy and one for himself.

Funny, when he finally could buy the Lamborghini, he didn't. Maybe he will one day, perhaps if he wins the Masters this week, or maybe he won't. Somehow it doesn't matter so much anymore.

Just when Tiger Woods was supposed to put a choke hold on the Tour, there was David in 1998, leading in victories, with four, wrapping up the Vardon Trophy as the golfer with the lowest scoring average and the title of the Tour's leading money winner. When the presentations were made, no one saw the tears behind the wraparound sunglasses. But they were there.

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