It was an 83, but it was a happy 83, according to David Duval. An unplayable lie? He was beside himself with joy. A snap hook?
To hear Duval talk, you'd think he skipped through the fescue. Happy with an 83 in the U.S. Open, happy with a round of 13 over par, three double bogeys and two unplayables, and not a single par on the back nine at Shinnecock Hills? Give the man a cold cloth for his forehead. The last time a golfer was happy with that kind of U.S. Open round had to be in 1898, when Fred Heard shot an 84 on the final day to win at the Myopia Hunt Club in Boston.
David Duval is back, but from what? We don't know, exactly. Duval called his performance "an enormous victory," a term that should probably be reserved for things like D-Day, or learning to walk again, not for eight bogeys in nine holes, and the fact that Duval chose to employ it suggests just what a long dark tunnel he's been in. It also suggests that Duval is still very fragile and not at all sure what he wants from the game of golf, despite his return here.
Ordinarily it would be hard to have much sympathy for the angst of a 32-year-old multimillionaire golfer, but something in Duval's demeanor suggests it was one epic case of angst. Last October, Duval abruptly walked away from the PGA Tour after missing the cut at the Las Vegas Invitational. The player who was No. 1 in the world and won a British Open championship disappeared from the game. He nursed a series of nagging physical breakdowns, in his back, knee, shoulder, but there were rumors too, of a larger kind of breakdown. Ask Duval what happened, and he is purposefully vague, referring to a kind of Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?" funk. "I had some existential moments," he says.
But you got a pretty good idea of just how bad it was from the state Duval was in when he arrived at Shinnecock Hills for a news conference Wednesday. The player who once strode fairways with a ramrod posture and grimly controlled demeanor behind his wraparound shades was tremulous, at times gulping air anxiously and on the verge of tears. According to Duval, what he had to recover during his eight-month absence was not so much his golf swing but his will to play at all, and he was clearly relieved -- to the point of weeping -- to have recovered it.
"The emotion comes from just the sheer desire to do it," he said. "I didn't know if I wanted to."
Duval has always been a complicated and heavy character. He stalked around the tour in his monochromatic shades, and professed himself a devotee of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged." He was a workout fanatic and a model of consistency. When he rose to No. 1, he was the golfer who had everything -- except, apparently, a happy life. His play deteriorated so badly last season that he missed the cut in 16 of the 20 tournaments he entered.
Duval had been playing the game since he was 3, and he had been a pro since 1993. "You know, the life out on this Tour is hard and it's long and it's lonely and I've been doing this for a long, long time," he says.
Duval described his decision to take time off in almost convalescent terms. He healed his injuries and played only four or so times a week and refused to practice. He only hit balls to warm up. He quit slaving in the gym so hard and let his waistline go soft. He met Susie Persichitte, a single mother of three, and fell in love and got married. If he couldn't beat anyone with his clubs anymore, maybe Duval figured he had found another way to win. He could say, other guys may win tournaments, but I'm happier than they are.
"What's happened to me in the last six to eighth months is far greater than anything I've ever done for the last 10 years around here," he says. "I want to play, but I've said it a hundred times and I'll say it again: If I had to make a choice, I'd go home and play with my family and friends, and you'd never see me again,"
Duval's decision to play the U.S. Open was as abrupt as his departure, and you could debate the wisdom of it endlessly. To Vijay Singh it was "out there." To Tiger Woods it made more sense. To the alternate qualifier who didn't get his spot in the field, it probably seemed selfish. Either way, you had to respect his nerve for choosing the national championship, and one of the tougher-conditioned courses in the world, as the starting point for a comeback attempt. "The U.S. Open is going to be tough, and if he plays poorly, a lot of guys are," Woods said. "So, of all the tournaments to play, I think he's probably doing the right thing."
For three holes, he looked like his old self. He smacked a three wood down the heart of the first fairway and sank a 12-footer for birdie. But his rustiness showed on No. 4, where he duck-hooked his driver into the weeds, and he took a penalty drop, beginning a three-hole stretch of double-double-bogey. He struggled from then on to find his distance and direction, and spent the rest of the round wandering through the various long grasses, hitting just four fairways and three greens. "It goes without saying I'm not tournament ready,"' he said.
It was Duval's third 83 in a major championship, to go with 83s in the British Open and Masters last season. But Duval insisted this one was different, and that when he missed the fairways, it was not by much. "Just smooth it out a little bit more, and man, watch out," he said.
More importantly, as far as Duval was concerned, it was the happiest 83 he ever shot. Happiness seems to be Duval's real goal now, and as anyone who ever hefted a wedge knows, golf and happiness are not always compatible. So it was hard to tell how significant Duval's appearance at Shinnecock Hills was. He's not ready to play full time again, and he wouldn't make any predictions about when he'll play again. "The next time I'm ready to play is when I'll show up," he said. It's not exactly a prescription for triumph. But there's no angst in it, either.