- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Vijay Singh, the PGA Tour’s resident grind, can’t imagine doing what David Duval is doing. Singh never likes to be away from the game for long, lest he lose the edge that makes him one of the most consistent players in the world. If there were 53 weeks in the year, Vijay would probably play in 53 tournaments — plus a few corporate outings.

“[Tennis legend] Ivan Lendl said if he missed one day, it took him two days to come back,” Singh said yesterday. “I kind of have the same philosophy. … It’s tough to come back after a layoff, and it’s tough to come back when you’re not playing well. David hadn’t been playing well for a while, and to come back and start off at a tournament like this, a U.S. Open, and on a golf course like this. … I would have thought he’d come back last week and just feel himself back into the groove of things.”

Of course, if Duval had done that, been that predictable, he wouldn’t be David Duval, Mystery Man. He claims he didn’t even know himself he was going to compete in the Open until Saturday night, just after he’d teed off on the fourth hole at Cherry Hills in Denver. He was playing all by his lonesome, and he just pulled out his cell phone, dialed his bride, Susie, and told her it was time to end his sabbatical, that he was going to Shinnecock Hills.

“I was in tears when I called home,” he said, “and I’ve been in and out of tears ever since. The emotion just comes from the sheer desire to do it. I didn’t know if I wanted to.”

That emotion seemed close to the surface during yesterday’s press conference. A question would be asked, and often Duval would pause and breathe deeply as if he were trying to hold himself together. A time or two, his voice appeared on the verge of cracking. It was quite the scene, this Return of David Duval. You would have thought he was returning from rehab — or jail — rather than six months of R & R.

The reasons for his vacation are well documented. Mentally, he was a burnout case. Physically, he was a wreck. His back ached, his shoulder ached. And his game, needless to say, was a certified disaster. He hadn’t won a tournament since the 2001 British Open, hadn’t held a third-round lead since the 2002 Michelob, and last year had cashed a check in only four of 20 events. He was the living dead, dragging himself from event to event, dreading having to go out on the course.

“The thing that’s been missing for me for a long time has been the enjoyment of being out there,” he said. “… When I got here last night, I wanted to be here. The last time I played [in Las Vegas last October], as soon as I got to the hotel room I wanted to leave.”

Marriage to Susie Persichitte in March, which brought him three instant children, has recharged him, restored his enthusiasm, he said. “Being around people who love me so much … I know I wouldn’t be here without them — my wife Susie, the kids, my new parents. It just kind of hit me Saturday night that I just wanted to go play, for no other reason than I just felt like I was ready to go have some fun and enjoy it again. Up to that point, I hadn’t wanted to.”

Tour buddies Davis Love and Fred Couples, among others, would call him during his exile to offer encouragement, but he just wasn’t ready to go back on the tour again. He needed to heal his body — not to mention his mind — and get his swing back to where it was before a series of injuries messed it up. He hasn’t really been practicing lately, he said, just playing four or five times a week and “hitting balls to loosen up.”

It showed on the first few holes of his practice round yesterday. He couldn’t keep his drives anywhere near the fairway. Oh, he was ready for the U.S. Open, all right — the 1896 U.S. Open.

His is a classic case of a player who at an early age achieved just about everything but contentment. He won 13 tournaments, including a major. He was ranked No.1 in the world. He shot a 59. And then, he said, after conquering Royal Lytham three years ago, “I went through my existentialist moments of kind of [thinking]: Is this it?

“My mistake was that I thought I had a pretty broad goal, but it turned out to be pretty narrow, and that was simply to see how good I could become in this game.”

Now he’s living more of a wide-angle life, “learning to be a husband, learning to be a father, learning to be a son again. I feel like in Denver with my wife and family out there that I’ve finally found home.”

There are, as Singh said, easier places to launch a comeback than Shinnecock, especially after it has been tricked up by the USGA. But Duval, an older, wiser 32, is anxious to get back to doing what he does best.

“I’m very nervous about this week,” he said. “Scared in a sense, too. I haven’t done it in quite some time.”

It’s a good kind of nervous, though. The kind of nervous that makes a man feel alive.

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