While still showing flashes of his old game, David Duval is struggling to get back

David Duval made only six cuts last season.
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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - The left side of his long-sleeved shirt was untucked as David Duval hunched over his par putt on the par-3 fifth hole at Pebble Beach on Friday.

He wore the same cap and mirrored sunglasses, the same goatee that he's worn for much of his career. From behind, though rumpled and slightly pudgy, Duval looked just as he did as he took his 59th stroke to win the Bob Hope Classic 11 years ago. He even has the same caddie he had in his prime: Mitch (Fort) Knox.

Of course it was an illusion. Although Duval fired a five-under-par 67 in the first round, the best of anyone in the field at Spyglass Hill, and toured Pebble Beach in 68 strokes Friday — a shot off the lead heading into the weekend — it's not 1999.

"A lot of things have happened since then," Duval said after barely missing an eight-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would have put him in a seven-way tie for the lead. "He [Knox] has shrunk and gotten fatter. I've shrunk and gotten fatter."

At 38, Duval fights a balky back that limits his practice time and almost knocked him out of this tournament before it began. He played just three holes of his practice round at Pebble on Monday before his back locked up. He had to walk off the course.

Duval got treatment on-site and learned that his hips were so out of alignment that his left leg was an inch and a half longer than his right. He played nine holes Tuesday and Wednesday, feeling better as the week went on, got treatment for his back after his round Thursday, and looked like a man without a care in the world Friday.

He chatted with playing partner Jeff Klauk about the unseasonable cold weather in Ponte Vedra, Fla., Klauk's hometown and Duval's former hometown. (He now lives in Denver, and sports a Denver Nuggets logo on his bag.) They teased Matt Kuchar, playing in the group in front of them, for indulging at the crepe stand just off Pebble's sixth tee.

Of course birdies tend to heighten the mood.

Duval birdied the second and third holes at Pebble, made a few ho-hum pars and then blistered his drive dead center on the par-5 sixth. It was just like old times as a fan, beer in hand, exclaimed, "Duval spanked it, man!"

Sometimes he does that. The maddening thing is he can also shove his orb wide right into the Pacific Ocean on his very next shot, as he promptly did to bogey the hole.

"A huge amount of David's golf is his own focus and his will to get out there and do it," Padraig Harrington said after shooting a 67 at Pebble on Friday to get to eight under for the tournament, a shot behind Duval. "Motivation is a massive part of our game."

Duval admittedly lost interest shortly after he won the 2001 British Open and realized he had been wrong to think a major victory would be the end-all, be-all of his life. He met Susie Persichitte, the mother of two boys and a girl, in the summer of 2003, and the two married soon after. They've since had two more kids together.

The three oldest children are teenagers now, and Duval has talked about wanting to show them how good he used to be, when he won 11 times in 36 starts in the late '90s.

Every so often he does exactly that.

After falling back with a bogey on the par-5 sixth hole, Duval made a nifty deuce on the par-3 seventh hole to get back to two under for the day, seven under for the tournament.

He birdied 11 and 14, getting to nine under, just two behind leader Dustin Johnson. Duval birdied 16 to get to 10 under before coming over his tee shot on 17 and ending up on the wrong half of the hourglass green and giving a shot back.

Instead of tempting fate with the driver on 18, where the ocean crashes onto the rocks left of the fairway, Duval hit 3-wood, then laid up well back of the green with his second shot. His birdie putt missed on the left side.

He hasn't cracked the top 125 on the money list since 2002, not even after last summer's heroics, when he recovered from a final-round triple bogey to tie for second place at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

It broke a streak of 116 tournaments without a top-10 finish, but Duval still made just six cuts in 22 starts last year, eventually finishing 130th in earnings.

"I feel like I've been playing well, and I don't feel like I've gotten anything out of it," he said Friday, not for the first time. "Ironically I think my play at the U.S. Open at Bethpage was more indicative of my play than the rest of the year."

Now in the unusual position of being exempt for the first three majors but reliant on sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour, Duval soldiers on, ever certain that his A-game, the one that he unleashed on the Tour not that long ago, is in there somewhere.

He shot a second-round 65 at the Bob Hope to start his 2010 season, but, alas, "I chipped it like I'd been in the snow for six weeks, which I had." He missed the cut but left the desert convinced that if he hit the ball that well the rest of the year, he'd "finish somewhere between first and 10th on the money list."

He opened with a 68 at the Northern Trust Open last week, but backed it up with scores of 75-76 to finish tied for 76th place.

Some days the game is there, some days it's not, and who knows why?

"He played well," playing partner Jeff Klauk said Friday. "He should be encouraged. He played well when I played with him at Memorial last year, too."

Not that you'd know it. Duval tied for 58th that week. He admits he's had trouble focusing for the non-majors and says he will try to put more emphasis on playing well in regular Tour events. Maybe he can trick himself this weekend, tell himself he's simply warming up for the 2010 Open at Pebble. Maybe this time he'll come all the way back.

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