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Going Backward?
April 17, 2006
Playing in what could be his final Masters, David Duval displayed the form that signaled either his imminent demise or the next step in what would be a remarkable comeback
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April 17, 2006

Going Backward?

Playing in what could be his final Masters, David Duval displayed the form that signaled either his imminent demise or the next step in what would be a remarkable comeback

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It would've been a 10-minute walk, tops, from the 2nd green to the clubhouse at Augusta National. And after David Duval's all-out assault on the flora bordering the left side of the 2nd fairway last Friday--he had hooked his drive into some azaleas, leading to a 10 on the par-5--you had to wonder if he was tempted to duck under the ropes and skip town. � Here was Duval, the Oakley-armored enigma who'd been a leader board fixture at four straight Masters (1998 through '01), playing for perhaps the final time at Augusta. Between 1997 and 2001 Duval won 13 PGA Tour events, the last of which was the '01 British Open. That win came with a five-year Masters exemption, which expired last Friday when he missed the cut by 11 shots. Since those heady days in '01, as the entire cosmos knows, Duval has been in dizzying free fall, a plummet accelerated by an array of maladies that included, appropriately, vertigo. Spraying tee shots and crisscrossing fairways throughout his opening-round 84 at Augusta, the former No. 1 player in the world elicited not awe, but pity.

The background noise at this year's Masters was the vaguely absurd, borderline theological debate over what a pair of dead men, Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, truly intended when they designed Augusta National. What they did not intend was for golfers to play the first two holes in seven over par, which is what Duval did by going double-bogey, quintuple-bogey to start the second round. Instead of picking up his ball and going home--at that point he stood at a jaw-dropping 19 over through 20 holes-- Duval did something completely unexpected: He turned back the clock and started playing like the Duval of old, hitting fairways, dive-bombing pins and burying putts. And he had a bit of luck. His drive on the par-5 8th hole was forest-bound but instead took one hop and struck Brooks Youmans, 59, in the left pectoral. Youmans, who was not injured, happens to be a Georgia Tech alum.

"Hope I saved you a stroke," he told Duval, the four-time All-America for the Yellow Jackets, who indeed went on to save par.

Duval birdied numbers 3, 7, 12, 14, 15 and 17. On the day no one had a higher score on the front nine than Duval's 43, and no one bettered his back-nine 32. Following one of the most bipolar rounds in Masters history, one could make the point that Duval found his game only after his fate was sealed and the pressure was off. The man himself saw it differently. "I didn't do very well yesterday," he said, "and I had a nightmare start today, but for the next 16 holes I played as well as anybody on the course. My game is there. It's simply a matter of gaining a little more confidence. I'm close."

Well, closer. After missing the cut in 19 of 20 starts last season, Duval has recently shown flashes. In November he was the first-round leader at the Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Miyazaki, Japan--outplaying the likes of Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk--before fading to a tie for seventh. In eight starts this year he has made three cuts, his best finish a 31st in the Sony Open.

After working through a Rolodex of swing gurus and sports psychologists, Duval reunited with his old coach at Tech, Puggy Blackmon, now the coach at South Carolina, at last year's Masters. "When I got to him," Blackmon says, "there was some weird stuff going on [with Duval's swing]." While they have worked to restore the motion that propelled him to No. 1 in the world in 1999, Duval has also returned to his former physique. In the mid-90s Duval drastically reshaped his body, morphing from panda-shaped to sculpted. In 2000 he suffered the back injury that began his downward spiral. He is now, as Mike Weir diplomatically put it last week, "back to his old body style."

Duval, 34, is heavier, and infinitely happier. Following him around the National last week was Susan Persichitte, who Duval met in Denver in August 2003 and married the following March. He has embraced, and been embraced by, Susan's sons from a previous marriage, Deano, 16, and Nick, 13. Deano was on Duval's bag during last Wednesday's par-3 contest. The ranks of their postmodern family grew by one a year ago, when Susan gave birth to Brayden, a fitful sleeper whose diapers, Duval assured a reporter, he frequently changes. "I was on the case this morning," he said, finally cracking a smile an hour after Friday's round.

Away from his brood Duval is focused on getting his game back. "And I believe he will," says fellow pro Tim Herron. "He's been swinging it much better lately. But the big news is, he's never been this happy. Does he let bad rounds get to him? Of course. They get to all of us. But he has a wife and a baby, and when he's home, he's home. He's away from it."

"He has a little of his swagger back," says Justin Leonard, who played a practice round with Duval on Wednesday. "He knows he's playing well, and he's not afraid to tell you. It's fun to see him hitting shots and not worrying about where his ball is going to end up."

During three practice rounds last week Duval tore up the National, but the moment it mattered on Thursday morning, he had no clue, duck-hooking his opening drive off an evergreen and setting the tone for a round that served as a primer on Augusta's varied plant life.

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