Spectre at the victory feast

Watching on television along with tens of millions of others as Phil Mickelson finally removed a major monkey from his back at Augusta was David Duval. Watching and thinking ... what, exactly? Perhaps, ‘That could have been me.” Maybe, ‘That should have been me.” Or, ‘One day that will be me.”

Who knows what is going through Duval’s head these days? His decline since winning the 2001 Open Championship has turned into a classic case history of what the game of golf can do, what it eventually does to almost everyone who plays it seriously: it does your head in.

Duval is ranked somewhere close to 300th in the world.
This is a joke. Make it 3 000th and you would be getting closer to the truth. And this may only be in his home state. The sad fact is that Duval is only a pro golfer because that’s what his passport says and probably this only continues to be stated because he is in the fourth year of a five-year Nike contract that grosses $6-million a season. And he needs the money.

Every other sign suggests that the man who was good enough — make that great enough — to win 11 United States Tour titles out of the 36 on offer between October 1997 and April 1999, a man who shot a 59 in the process and who won the Open at Lytham less than three years ago, is toast. His best chance of winning this month’s Masters was to turn up. He was eligible courtesy of that Open, but instead Duval withdrew, quoting ‘unspecified injuries”.

Last year he played Augusta, a major he so nearly won at least twice, and returned rounds of 79 and 83. Darren Clarke played with him and later sadly reported that Duval had hit ‘the most horrible, horrific shots”, but that his attitude throughout this public ordeal had been ‘incredible; I’ve never played with anyone whose attitude was so good”.

Great attitude, awful swing. It’s not the recommendation required by a golfer whose 15-week swing as the world’s top player in the summer of 1999 is a record that has been all but obliterated by Tiger Woods’s dominance, beginning with victory in the USPGA that year.

Duval blames his back and it’s true he does have a spine problem brought about by his stubborn desire to take himself to the edge, whether snowboarding, mountain biking or lifting weights. He won the Open in style and then delivered the most graceful acceptance speech of recent times.

Until then, he had wrapped himself behind an image part Ben Hogan, part Robocop. His shades and his hat and his occasional goatee shielded him from a prying world. He was telling us that he did not need our approval, much less our interest, that he was some sort of genuinely self-sufficient hard case who lived in a different world. Other players treated him with a sort of confused respect. Even Tiger recognised Duval as a genuine adversary. For a time.

When Duval took off all the props in Lytham, he revealed a more sensitive, rounded man than we had noticed before. And as he stood there on top of one the game’s great peaks he realised something else. He realised that all along it had been the journey that had driven him forward, that the destination was not all it had been cracked up to be. And then his back began to hurt.

Johnny Miller, who dominated the game for two years in the mid-1970s, winning US and British Open titles and lots besides, knows that feeling. He felt it himself, just down the road from Lytham as he cradled the 1976 Claret Jug at Birkdale. Miller now says that at that moment he felt he had achieved everything he had desired in golf — and his ambition deflated.

‘David probably thought getting that major was supposed to be this orgasmic moment, but it turned out to be more like that Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is?,” Miller told Golf Digest recently.

Duval, meanwhile, has confided to friends that he has this recurring dream of opening a bookshop, of serving coffee and talking big ideas with like-minded folk. He has always let us know that playing golf well, even very, very well, is no way to define your worth as a person. This may be a small and obvious truth, but in the often pea-brained world of pro sport it is a thought worthy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Already Mickelson will be contemplating his menu for the champions’ dinner he will host at the 2005 Masters. David Duval will be there. Not as a champion and not in the flesh. But he will be there. He will be the spectre at the feast, the man who represents the deep fears of all these champions. That, right now, is David Duval’s only, bleak role in a game he once brought to heel. It is, of course, food for thought for them all. —

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