David Duval has found his game, and the leaderboard, at the U.S. Open

David Duval has found his game, and the leaderboard, at the U.S. Open

Duval hasn't won a tournament since the 2001 British Open.
Al Tielemans/SI

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The rain has fallen hard this week at Bethpage Black. David Duval knows all about falling hard.

His decline is old news. Duval, now 37, has been in a golfing wilderness ever since his last win, the 2001 British Open, and his precipitous decline from No. 1 in the world rankings to his current ranking, No. 882. Yes, it’s hard to remember the time when the numbers said he — or anyone else, for that matter — was better than Tiger Woods.

Duval’s resurrection — what else can you call what is happening to his career this week? — is hot news. Rain delays and messed-up tee times have stolen most of the drama from this U.S. Open. At least, they had until Sunday afternoon. Now there’s Phil Mickelson, the designated sentimental favorite, on the leaderboard, and Duval, chunkier and happier than he was during a successful reign in golf that included 13 tour victories and a 59. Take this and savor it: Duval is in position to win the United States Open.

By the time Duval finished off his second straight 70 Sunday afternoon, finally concluding the third round, the sun was trying hard to burn through a layer of clouds, although it never quite succeeded. Duval’s performance, which included birdies on two of the last three holes, was even brighter. He finished at three under par, tied for third with Ross Fisher. Duval is five behind surprising Open leader Ricky Barnes, a former U.S. Amateur champion, and four behind Lucas Glover.

It doesn’t matter what happens Monday during the final round. Duval has already accomplished something unique and noteworthy. Plenty of golfers have seen their games simply vanish — Ian Baker-Finch, Chip Beck and Sandy Lyle come to mind, among others. No one in golf has ever fallen as far or as fast as Duval has and bounced back. Well, he’s back now. Whether he climbs all the way to the top of this mountain and claims an U.S. Open championship or simply makes a gallant run, he has made his statement and put an exclamation point behind it.

“I’m excited to play some more,” Duval said after the third round, before going back out for Sunday evening’s start of the fourth round. “It’s a little awkward that you’re going to tee off and play a hole and go do it all over again. It’s Groundhog Day. But I’m going to go sit down and relax for a while and get ready to play a hole.”

A trail of 80-something scores is in Duval’s rearview mirror now, including that 83 last summer at Royal Birkdale when he was only three shots off the lead after the first 36 holes. This hasn’t been easy for Duval.

“Maybe I took it for granted I was going to play well all the time,” Duval said. “I’m pretty hard to fluster now.”

There were theories about what happened to his game. The most obvious was that he had back troubles that caused him to change his unorthodox swing to compensate for the pain. The other was his comment in the wake of that British Open victory. He eventually admitted that he asked himself, Is that all there is? Winning the claret jug, getting to No. 1 and finally claiming a major championship didn’t make him feel fulfilled. He was a lonely warrior, a smart guy with a lot of other interests that made golf seem less fascinating after going at it hard for a decade and a half.

He is back now because he found the secret of life and happiness — family. He met a woman in Denver who already had a couple of children. They married and had another child together. It is exactly what Duval was missing, although he didn’t know it. His time away from golf helped rekindle his desire, along with an urge to show his family that he could still play this game.

“I believed I could get it back,” he said. “I knew I had developed some very bad swing problems and through that, lost all confidence. I knew the process was going to be a long time and would take a lot of work. But you know, I’m just not a quitter.”

He has been telling friends that his game wasn’t far off this year, but the results weren’t backing him up. He’s missed eight cuts, and though he started well at the Memorial, he eventually slipped back to 58th. He used a one-time exemption for ranking among the top 50 on the career money list to stay on tour this year, so he needs a good year to regain his exempt status.

All of that is on the backburner, however, heading into the Open’s final round. Duval looked like the player of old coming in. He played a high, hooking 9-iron over a tree to 10 feet at the 16th hole and made the putt for birdie. At 18, he stuck a 7-iron shot to six feet for another one. He made it look easy, he always has, but of course it’s not. Monday will be familiar territory for him.

“I know I’ve been there before,” he said. “It’s not like a distant memory. A lot of what happens with confidence and success, they are closely entwined. As you’re not having success, you’re losing confidence and your short-term memory starts to remember bad stuff. I remember good stuff.

“I’m going to go out and probably hit a lot of good shots and a couple of squirrely ones, too, but I feel comfortable and confident in what I’m doing. That’s all you can ask for.”

His confidence will be tested Monday morning. Duval has a chance to win the Open going into the final round. That, indeed, is all a golfer can ask for.

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