- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

Memo to the golf world: David Duval is back.

The former world No.1 made a stunning return to form yesterday at TPC at Avenel, shattering the course record with a second-round 62 that moved him from career oblivion within two strokes of midpoint Capital Open leader Rory Sabbatini (8-under 134).

“I feel good about putting together 18 holes without a hiccup, which is something I haven’t done in a while,” said the 31-year-old Duval, who had made just two cuts in 11 starts this season. “I just played well today. If you will, I feel like I saw some of the fruits of my labors over the last many months.”

Few players have plummeted as quickly from golf’s upper echelon as Duval has over the last 22 months. After collecting his first major title and 13th total victory at the 2001 British Open, Duval’s game and confidence rapidly began to erode. With his control failing off the tee, he managed just two top-10s last season, finishing 80th on the money list ($838,045).

And things had gone from bleak to flat-out black this season as Duval struggled with all parts of his game and missed cut after cut. Entering the Capital, Duval ranked next to last (182nd) on Tour in driving accuracy (46.3 percent) and greens in regulation (52.6), dropping to 82nd in the current world rankings.

This was the same player who briefly held the top spot in those same rankings in 1999. This was the same Georgia Tech prodigy who was once universally heralded as Tiger’s top rival. This was the same machinelike perfectionist who tied the tour record by posting a final-round 59 en route to victory at the 1999 Bob Hope Classic.

Speculation over the cause of Duval’s slump abounded. Some claimed it was his breakup with his fiancee and girlfriend of eight years, Julie McArthur. Some claimed it was the inevitable product of his unconventionally strong grip and headfirst swing. Some claimed he simply didn’t care.

“In some ways, I’ve been insulted [by the speculation],” Duval said. “And in some ways, I’ve gotten a real kick out of it, especially the talk of lack of desire, lack of work ethic. … I got slapped upside the face with some of life’s issues. I had some injuries, a little case of vertigo, whatever. So many obstacles have been thrown my way. But it hasn’t hurt my love of the game. The lack of performance has certainly bothered me. But it’s bothered me not so much because I’m not winning golf tournaments but because I expect a lot of myself when I play the game because I know I’m good.”

Sports psychologist Gio Valiante, who on Davis Love’s recommendation has been working with Duval for the last three weeks, says Duval had forgotten just how good.

“He wasn’t in a good place when I first saw him three weeks ago,” Valiante said yesterday. “Failure breeds failure, as Vince Lombardi said. Winning is a habit, and so is losing. David was getting comfortable with losing. But his attitude has changed 180 degrees since then.”

For anyone lucky enough to witness yesterday’s performance, so have the results. The man with the methodical gait and signature shades was nearly flawless with ball-in-hand at Avenel, hitting 16 greens, chipping in once, avoiding bogey and besting the former course record shared by eight players by a stroke. And in typical Duval fashion, he was practically blase about just his second score in the 60s since February.

“I’m a lucky golfer in the sense that I grew up in a household where my father was the pro at a course, and maybe it wasn’t the hardest course, where I learned how to shoot low scores,” said Duval, who started his round on the back nine and carded birdies at Nos.11, 14-18, 3, 5 and 6. “I’m not afraid of going low.

“I don’t expect to shoot 62 every day, but I do expect a lot of myself. I hit the ball well today. I didn’t hit it great. I really didn’t. I hit some good shots, and I made some putts. If you want to try to compare it to the 59, you’re talking about night and day. That day I made 11 birdies and an eagle, and all those putts added up to 53 feet.”

Duval certainly wasn’t stuffing approaches that close yesterday on the muddy 7,005-yard, par-71 track, but he could have nearly equaled the epic score had a pair of 12-foot birdie bids fallen on his final two holes (Nos.8 and 9). And based on his play of late and his opening 74, even the prince of understatement must be happy with his weekend position, which finds him locked with three others (Notah Begay, Tom Gillis and Niclas Fasth) just two shots behind Sabbatini.

Sabbatini, a 27-year-old South African native with one tour victory (2000 Air Canada Championship), followed up his opening 68 with a 66, leaving his driver in the bag in favor of a steady 3-wood.

All told, 78 players made the Capital Open’s weekend cut, which fell at 2-over 144. In an attempt to squeeze in today’s third round before the predicted heavy afternoon showers, the remaining field will go off both the front and back in threesomes starting at 7:30 a.m. That puts the final threesome of Sabbatini, Begay and Gillis off the first tee at 9:30, roughly five hours ahead of the standard Saturday PGA Tour schedule.

A handful of the event’s top draws failed to make the cut, including Phil Mickelson (145), Jesper Parnevik (147) and John Daly (148).

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