Thursday, July 20, 2006

Redemption Song?

As I sit down to write this, we are less than an hour and a half from the start of the 2006 edition of The Open Championship. As we enter one of golf’s most important weekends, all eyes are on the usual suspects. Everybody is wondering if Tiger is ready to bounce back, if Vijay still has it in him or if his best days are behind him, if Monty can somehow finally get that elusive major, or if Phil can erase the ghosts of the 72nd hole at Winged Foot? I, like everyone else, am eagerly anticipating the answers to these questions. Even more, however, I’m interested in how the story that begins at 9:40 a.m. this morning is going to play out. In truth, this story began five years ago at St. Lytham’s & St. Annes. It’s a story of personal triumph, followed by physical and emotional heartache, devastating failure, and, I hope, ultimately, redemption. This, of course, is the story of David Duval.

Five years ago, Duval, the third ranked player in the world at the time, walked off the 72nd green at The Open Championship to the roar of the always appreciative crowd, having apparently reached the pinnacle of his career. After years of disappointment, including numerous close calls at Augusta National, Duval had finally captured his first Major Championship, and had solidified his position as one of golf’s elite. For those of us that are die hard Duval fans, things couldn’t have been better. Hell, to us, it seemed as if the battle with Tiger had been joined, and Duval was the man that had stepped forward from the pack to challenge the greatest player to ever to wear spikes. Little did we know, however, what Duval apparently sensed at the time: despite the victory, Duval’s game was slipping away. Yes, he managed to chip and putt his way to the Claret Jug, but he didn’t have the command of his game he wanted. Little did we know that Duval couldn’t shake the bursitis in his left shoulder, or that his back was as fragile as the Braves’ bullpen, or that his personal life was on the verge of blowing up in front of him. In short, little did we know that Duval’s life and golf game were about to implode.

How bad has it been? Well, to begin with, Duval has not won a single event since he hoisted the Claret Jug five years ago. He’s missed huge chunks of time due to his injuries, and he went through stretches where he might have actually lost money to Michael Jordan on the golf course. It got so bad that before heading to Shinnecock for the 2004 U.S. Open, his sponsors from Nike called just to say that he didn’t need to feel obligated to play because of them. Then, last season he missed the cut in 19 of the 20 PGA events he entered, and he shot an 85 at Pebble Beach and threw up a 49 on the back nine at The Bob Hope. In other words, it got to the point that nobody could look at you with a straight face and say they actually believed Duval would ever get his game back. Things didn’t look any better at this year’s Masters when Duval posted an 84 on Thursday and fired a 6 and a 10 on the first two holes on Friday. Then, out of nowhere, in the blazing sun of a spring afternoon in the far eastern stretches of Georgia, it happened. Somehow, someway, Duval reached deep inside and willed his way to a 32 on the back nine at Augusta. That’s not a 32 at any old course, that’s a 32 at AUGUSTA.

All of the sudden, there was hope. All of the sudden, we were no longer resolved to the fact that Duval would simply fade away and become one of golf’s great mysteries and tragedies like Chip Beck and Ian Baker Finch before him. Instead, in that one stretch of nine holes at golf’s greatest venue, David Duval showed us that the man that had once reached the number 1 ranking in the world and had hoisted the Claret Jug still resided inside him. In the matter of two hours among the azaleas, we saw hope, and the question became not if, but when would Duval again be the player we once knew?

Since Augusta, the signs have kept coming. First, there were the four consecutive rounds of 70 or better at the Colonial. Then came his gutty 16th place performance at Winged Foot. Since Augusta, Duval has made the cut in 5 of the 8 tournaments he’s entered, and he’s started to regain that old swagger. Certainly, he’s a long way from the player he was when he sat atop the world rankings in 1999, or when he won The Open in 2001, but you can see it coming. More importantly, you can feel it coming. A year ago, if somebody had so much as mentioned Duval as a dark horse at The Open, you would have told the bartender to cut them off. Now, however, if someone, like me, said the same thing, you might respond with something like, “yea, he’s a long shot, but I guess it could happen.” And, that is the point. It COULD happen. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. That alone is proof that David Duval has cleared the biggest hurdle on his comeback trail: he’s turned the corner from desperation to hope. Do I think he’s going to win this weekend? Of course not. Is it worth my time to pay attention to his scorecard? You bet your ass.

So, what has made the difference over the past year? Is it his marriage? Is it the three children to whom he is now a stepfather? Is it his newborn son? Is it his revamped swing? Or, is it his growing confidence? Truth is, it is undoubtedly a combination of all these factors, and probably many more. Whatever it is, however, I hope it continues, because eventually, the hope is going to become reality. In Duval's case, when hope intersects with reality, the result will be redemption. And, a story of redemption is always a story worth watching.