- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y.

The 109th U.S. Open was braced to watch Tiger make his 15th major mark or Phil win one for Amy.

It was hard to imagine a better story crashing the party at Bethpage. That was before a golf corpse crawled out of his casket of a career and into contention at the sodden Black Course.

You want a better story than Tiger or Lefty? How about “Dead man wins U.S. Open.”

Seven years after the last time his career had a pulse, David Duval landed on the 36-hole leader board at the U.S. Open, backing up an opening 67 with a resilient second-round 70 to stun everyone in attendance other than Duval himself.

“I have felt like for most of this year my scores have not been reflective of how I’m playing,” the 37-year-old Duval said. “I feel like my scores are slowly catching up to how I’m playing. I’ve been working hard, and I’m playing well.”

That depends upon the interpretation of “well.” In 13 starts this season, Duval has made four cuts, posting a season-best finish by tying for 55th at Pebble Beach. He arrived at Bethpage ranked 185th on the PGA Tour in scoring average (72.70), 188th in greens in regulation (57.84 percent) and 192nd (or dead last) in driving accuracy (46.19 percent).

He hasn’t recorded a top-10 finish in 115 starts dating back to Las Vegas in 2002. He has made just three cuts in his last 15 major starts dating back to the beginning of the 2003 season. And he hasn’t recorded a victory in any event since collecting his sole slam scalp at the 2001 British Open.

None of that would be particularly noteworthy if Duval hadn’t once been golf’s greatest player. A decade ago, when Tiger was in the midst of his first major swing change, Duval was the game’s co-goliath. In fact, he’s the only player not named Woods or Singh to have been ranked No. 1 in the last decade.

Now vanishing acts are nothing new to the world’s most fickle game. But Duval was no ordinary Ian Baker-Finch. He shot a 59 at the 1999 Bob Hope Classic to tie the game’s magic mark. He won 13 times between 1997 and 2001 (second only to Woods). He was a genuine prodigy, not some grinding golf Lehman simply keeping the throne warm for Tiger.

Then he hoisted the Claret Jug at Lytham, was stunned to find it didn’t make spirits taste any sweeter and wandered off into the rough in an existential funk never to be seen again.

Or so we thought. Here was Duval at Bethpage, with all the world watching, in an event ill-suited to his wild-driving ways, hitting fairways, battering greens and shrugging at our surprise.

“Patience is crucial in this game, and I feel like I have been patient for many years,” said Duval, who qualified for the Open by advancing through the 36-hole sectionals in Columbus, Ohio, two weeks ago with a strong performance (66-69). “Confidence has been lacking for me for a while. My day in Columbus was a big boost for me because I put so much pressure on myself to get here, and so I probably made it much harder. But I managed to control myself and play real well that day and get in.”

And now he’s making the most of a favorable draw and soft conditions on the 7,426-yard, par-70 layout. It’s impossible to know whether his swing will hold up over the next two days. But for the first time in many years, his mind isn’t an issue.

When Duval began his second round by playing his first six holes at 4 over, most folks assumed that he was preparing to vanish yet again after a one-round anomaly. But Duval played his final 12 holes at 4 under to entrench himself in contention five shots behind midpoint leader Ricky Barnes.

That resilience was a flashback to the unflappable “Double D” of yore. Perhaps Duval the golfer will once again be the same. Duval the man will never be. The tour’s one-time Duke of Dour is dead. The 2009 version has solved life’s quest for meaning. That solution is named Susie. Duval married her in 2004, instantly becoming a stepfather to her three children. Another son and daughter have since followed, completing Duval’s portrait of domestic bliss. He’s added a little weight, dropped a little ego and now reports for work with a newfound sense of motivation.

Said Duval: “One, I love playing the game. I love competing. But more than that, I’d really like for my wife and family to see how I can actually play this game. They haven’t seen me at my best, and I want them to.”

Any golf fan would want to see Duval return to form. He has always been one of the sport’s most intriguing individuals, even after he stopped being one of its brightest stars. Now, perhaps he’s two rounds from completing golf’s greatest career comeback since Ben Hogan whipped a Greyhound bus.

“I love playing up here… it’s very loud and vocal,” Duval said. “I’m hoping to give them a good show for a couple more days.”

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