AUGUSTA, Ga. – David Duval ambled away from the 13th tee, strolled over the Nelson Bridge and found a nice, comfortable spot to plop down in the middle of the fairway.
He sat there for a couple of minutes, next to his ball, staring across Rae’s Creek toward the woods on the other side, soaking up the brilliant colors of the azaleas and dogwoods.
The perfect place to reflect, to think back on all he once was at Augusta National and still hopes to be.
Hardly. Duval isn’t much for reminiscing or any of that mushy stuff.
“It was brutal out there. They were playing soooo slow,” he grumbled Tuesday after a practice round that dragged on for nearly five hours. “I was just trying to keep from going to sleep.”
For Duval, so much has changed since the last time he contended at the Masters, nearly a decade ago. From the expanded waistline to the errant shots to the wandering concentration, he barely resembles the guy who once ruled as golf’s No. 1 player.
This is the first time he’s qualified for the Masters since 2006, when he shot a 10 on the second hole and missed the cut for the fourth year in a row. He’s here thanks to a runner-up finish at last year’s U.S. Open.
Then again, so much remains the same.
Duval still walks the course with an aura reserved for the greats, not someone who last won a tournament at the 2001 British Open, not someone who’s looks perpetually frumpy with his shirttail hanging out, not someone who comes here sandwiched between Anthony Wall and Danny Willett at No. 110 in the world rankings.
Maybe it’s the aloof demeanor, obscured by those wraparound glasses. Maybe it’s the standoffish body language, the sense that he’s not really paying a lick of attention to the folks shouting, “Go get ’em, David” and other encouraging words.
There was always a mystery about Duval, and the fact that a once-brilliant game got away from him in the blink of an eye only adds to the intrigue. At nearly every hole, some patron posing as a fairway psychologist offered up a possible explanation for his baffling decline, everything from depression to vertigo.
For the record, Duval feels just fine – about his fame, too.
“I’m comfortable, entirely comfortable, with what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I feel like I’m swinging the golf club how I want to. I feel like I’m striking the golf ball how I want to. To me, it’s a matter of performing and doing that more regularly than I may be at the moment.”
If nothing else, Duval seems to have rekindled a sense of feistiness with the media that melted away as his scores went up and up. He now feels as though he’s put up enough good results – the 2009 U.S. Open and this year’s AT&T at Pebble Beach – to stop all those annoying questions about his slump.
Never mind that he’s missed the cut in four of his seven PGA Tour events this year.
“Some of this, I don’t understand,” he said. “I’m trying to talk about and answer questions I’ve been answering for a couple of years now, and I don’t know why I need to answer them any more than I have. I have talked about it.”
Duval might have hit rock bottom at that 2006 Masters. He opened with an 84, then started the second round with a double bogey at No. 1 and a quintuple-bogey 10 at the second, when he drove into a hazard on the left and took two more penalty strokes before he finally escaped.
But that day, as bad as it was, also signified that Duval’s shotmaking skills had not totally abandoned him. He bounced back to make five birdies over the final 12 holes, including a 32 on the back nine. Not nearly good enough to make the cut, of course, but a start.
Duval never doubted that he’d make it back to the Masters someday. Whether he can ever be the sort of player he once was at Augusta National remains to be seen.
Over a four-year stretch beginning in 1998, Duval had a pair of runner-up finishes, plus a third and a sixth. He still believes those are four green jackets that got away.
“I’d like to see him at his best again,” said Jim Furyk, who joined Duval for the practice round along with Justin Leonard. “I played a lot of golf with him back when he was the best player in the world, and he was really, really good. I guess the rest of that is: Does he really want to get back to that level again? It’s difficult to do. But I really liked what I saw today in his game.”
Duval is convinced that he’s worked out the flaws in his swing, which were caused by injuries and waning confidence. But he finds it difficult to keep it together from round to round, even shot to shot.
On Tuesday, for instance, he made a nifty little wedge shot right up next to the flag at No. 15. Then he came back with a wild swing off the tee at the par-3 16th, his left arm flying off the club as he hit a screaming line drive that cleared the water but skidded right through the green.
The patrons groaned.
“I probably need to think a little bit better on the golf course, manage my game a little bit better,” Duval said. “Get rid of some of the silly mistakes that tend to add up. Really, that’s probably it.”