After cracking splendid drives on his first three holes at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo., David Duval was standing next to the fourth tee early Saturday evening, deep in thought. "I was alone," he said Wednesday. "And that was when."

That was when a player ranked No. 1 in the world as recently as six years ago, a man who won the 2001 British Open and then walked away from the game last November, decided it was time to come back to golf. He will make his return appearance Thursday on one of the game's grandest stages -- the 104th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

"It just kind of hit me Saturday night that I just wanted to go play," Duval said early Wednesday afternoon. "For no other reason than I just felt like I was ready to go and have some fun and enjoy it again. Up to that point, I hadn't wanted to play."

Over the course of a 25-minute news conference, Duval seemed on the verge of tears several times as he tried to explain why he had not played a competitive round on the PGA Tour since November.

"Am I emotional?" he asked, repeating a question. "Very. I was in tears when I called [his wife] Saturday night when I was out golfing and said I was going to New York, and I've been in and out of tears ever since. My expectations this week are to have fun, to enjoy the atmosphere, and that's about it."

When Duval began his hiatus almost seven months ago, he clearly was getting no pleasure from the game. He was suffering from back and shoulder injuries that needed time to heal. His once majestic game was in a free-fall. Then, he met Susie Persichitte, a single mother with three children. They were married March 6, and Duval became an enthusiastic first-time father. It all left him with little desire to play tournament golf.

"The great thing when I got here last night is that I wanted to be here," Duval said. "The last time I played [in Las Vegas last November], when I checked into the hotel, I wanted to leave."

Duval was the last player to register for this tournament, and when he arrived on the premises wearing his signature wrap-around sunglasses, spectators offered encouragement. "Welcome back" was the primary sentiment, the same message he got from many of his playing peers when he walked to the practice range to hit about 25 balls before teeing off with his friends Fred Couples and Davis Love III shortly after 2 p.m.

"It's good to have you back," a man bellowed from the bleachers overlooking the practice grounds as Duval headed toward the first tee. There was a warm round of applause when he was introduced to the crowd before he hit his first shot, an off-line draw that actually hit a spectator standing behind the gallery ropes down the left side. Duval whacked a mulligan, and his second shot soared from the elevated tee down to the first cut of rough.

Duval definitely had a severe case of the "lefts" as he made his way around the opening holes, snap-hooking two tee shots at the 478-yard third hole and leaving his drive in the left rough at the 435-yard fourth. Last season, his worst on tour, he missed the cut in 16 of his 20 events and was 212th on the money list, with just more than $84,000 in earnings.

"Injury, desire, who knows," Duval said of his decision to stop playing. "It eventually changed my golf swing. Addressing the golf ball was extremely different. Was that injuries? It doesn't matter; it's what it is."

He recalled winning a playoff at the Disney event in 1997 and "when I hit the par putt, I didn't even feel myself hitting the ball. The day I shot 59 [in the 1999 Bob Hope Classic with an eagle on his last hole], I didn't even feel the shot. It's what I strive for."

Duval said he has no expectations for anything but a good time this week. Many of his peers, including Vijay Singh, questioned why he would choose to make his comeback in a major championship, on such a trying course.

"It's tough to come back after a layoff, and it's tough to come back when you're not playing well," Singh said Wednesday morning. "David had not been playing well for a while, and to come back and start off in a tournament like this, a U.S. Open, and on a golf course like this, I don't know, he must be out there somewhere."

Duval had a simple explanation.

"The reason I didn't play the Buick [last week] is because I didn't want to, that's why," he said. "If this week was Memphis, I'd probably be in Memphis, is what it is. It has to do with the U.S. Open, and some of it has to do with I finally wanted to go. . . . I didn't want to be here all week. We had family things to do."

Duval, once known for his near maniacal off-course workout and weightlifting regime, said he essentially stopped most of that in November. He looks to be about 10 to 15 pounds heavier than last season and joked that he was wearing a baggy shirt to hide a slightly expanded waistline. He said he's been playing golf in Denver, his new home, about four or five times a week, but only hits a few balls to warm up before teeing off.

"I had to get my back and shoulder back," he said. "At times, I'm hitting it good; at times I'm not."

Duval also made it very clear he has no plans beyond playing in this tournament. "I'm not looking beyond this week." He said it was gratifying to hear people tell him they hoped he would go back to the game while he was off, and that he was "amazed that so many people care if I play.

"I've gotten applauded for being the way I am, for being honest, and I've gotten beaten up for it, too," he said. "What it says to me is that my decision to speak honestly the whole time, to give opinions, was the right decision."

Did the son of a teaching and playing golf professional miss the game he has played as a pro since 1993?

"The life on this tour is long; it's hard and it's lonely," he said, "and I've been doing it for a long, long time. In some sense, to be honest with you, I haven't missed it. I haven't missed being away, but I just wanted to play this week. The U.S. Open is a very hard thing for me to miss, and I was anxious for my wife and my family to see me and see what I do, to see the atmosphere.

"I can't tell you when I'm going to play again. It doesn't mean I'm playing next week or the week after. I just wanted to play this week, and that's it."

"My expectations this week are to have fun, to enjoy the atmosphere, and that's about it," David Duval said.