- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

SOUTHPORT, England | David Duval strolled up the final fairway on a cloudy day in dark sunglasses, waving to the cheering fans, back in a familiar place at the British Open.

OK, so it was only Friday. And most of the grandstand seats were empty. And this is Royal Birkdale, not Lytham.

But, for a guy who lost his way all those years - even while finding himself away from the golf course - it was like a homecoming.

“C’mon, David!” someone screamed.

This goes out to all those who wondered, “Hey, whatever happened to David Duval?” Well, he’s back - at least for a day - and in the unlikeliest of places, the leader board of golf’s oldest major.

For a while, Duval made it feel like 2001 all over again by shooting a 1-under 69 that left him just three strokes behind leader K.J. Choi.

Not that Duval is ready to reminisce. He’ll leave that to 53-year-old Greg Norman, just one shot off the lead and an equally compelling figure.

“Stepping back in time?” Duval repeated a reporter’s question. “No, I’m looking to the future.”

Good move. That has to be an improvement on what he’s gone through the past six or seven years, though any discussion of Duval’s descent comes with an important caveat: He never has been more content.

Duval’s teenage stepsons, Deano and Nick, were out on the course with the guy who treats them like his own. Wife Susie was back home in Colorado, caring for the rest of their expansive family: another child from her first marriage, plus the two young children she’s had with David since they tied the knot.

It’s sort of like the Duval Bunch, except the husband came to the table alone, yearning for the comfort and validation of a family to call his own.

”I’m 100 percent happy,” he said in the slowly dwindling light of a lengthy summer day. “I’m where I want to be and I’m doing what I want to do. The difficulty now lies in actually leaving and going and playing. You know, I’ve become a very good country club golfer. I enjoy carts and 2 1/2-hour rounds and then going back home. It is sometimes quite hard getting on the road.”

But don’t mistake homesickness for a lack of resolve. Duval intends to get back where he was once: the world’s No. 1 player, standing on the 18th green at Lytham with the claret jug in his grasp, champion of the 2001 British Open.

No one could have known, but that moment was his peak; his career was about to go over a cliff. In 2002, Duval slipped to 80th in the PGA rankings and his earnings dipped by a staggering 70 percent. Over the next three years, he played in 49 official Tour events and made the cut in only eight. His paychecks for 2005 totaled all of $7,630.

After showing signs of breaking out of his slump, Duval appeared to take a major step backward this year. He came into Birkdale having played in 11 events and surviving exactly one cut.

Now, make it two.

Duval will be playing on the weekend at the British Open. He’ll be in the fifth group from the end, in the mix for a major title, something that would have sounded ludicrous to suggest just two days ago.

Well, ludicrous to everyone but Duval.

“I’ve been expecting to play quite well for some time,” he said. “There’s nothing that’s made it click this week. What’s made it click is what’s been going on for the last year and a half and the work I’ve been putting in and the time I’ve been using to practice.”

His coach, Puggy Blackmon, said the breakthrough is closer than anyone can see, even after the last two days at Birkdale.

“He’s back,” the coach said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. He’s got that stare back.”

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