- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

For a few gloriously nostalgic hours Monday, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval all occupied the leader board in the final round of the U.S. Open - and not necessarily in that order, either.

Should someone have snapped a photo of said board as a keepsake, or might we be seeing this a few more times as the former Big Three trudge inexorably toward the Big Four-O?

None of them took home the trophy, of course. Low-profile Lucas Glover absconded with that by out-steadying his more celebrated competition down the stretch. But Duval’s return to relevance was, for me, the best part of this overtime Open - the one that began with the players being run through a car wash and ended with the all-too-real prospect of an 18-hole playoff in the Long Island twilight.

Duval, as most everyone knows, pretty much disappeared from golf from 2002 to, well, now. After winning the British Open at Royal Lytham in ‘01 for his first major title, he fell so far in the world rankings you couldn’t find him with a GPS device. Burnout? Mental block? Swing flaw? The mysteries of Being David? Choose your poison.

In recent years, Duval’s mantra has been “I’m close” - close, that is, to recapturing his previously ferocious form. But as the missed cuts piled up, it began to feel like waiting for a 30-pound turkey to come out of the oven on Thanksgiving Day.

You have to understand, only a handful of players have ever posed much of a threat to Sir Eldrick. Duval, at the turn of the millennium, was one of them. And when Tiger, David and Phil placed 1-2-3 at the ‘01 Masters - after a back nine on Sunday that had viewers putting off trips to the bathroom - the feeling was: Boy, it’s going to be fun watching these guys have at one another for the next decade or so. In fact, their rivalry might be as good as the one between Jack Nicklaus, Arnie Palmer and Gary Player back in the day.

Then Duval just vanished.a And really, it was worse than that. It was as if he’d been abducted - like the Lindbergh baby. Had someone made a ransom demand, golf fans gladly would have paid it because his absence on the PGA Tour left a void that couldn’t be filled by any Tom (Pernice), Dicky (Pride) or Henry (Stenson).

It’s funny. You peruse Duval’s picture in the Tour media guide, and it looks nothing like he does today. No chin whiskers. No world-weariness. Nothing to suggest the last seven years ever happened. It’s the picture of Dorian Gray, a file photo that keeps him forever young - as if people are hoping he’ll resurface Just As He Was in ‘01.

And perhaps, at Bethpage Black, he finally did. You don’t want to jump to too many conclusions, because it is, after all, only one tournament. On the other hand, this is the Open we’re talking about, an event that exposes a golfer’s every imperfection - physical, mechanical, emotional.

You can’t fake your way - or luck your way - around a U.S. Open layout, not for four rounds. If your game is being held together by duct tape, it will become readily apparent over the course of 72 holes. Either the length will get you… or the pinched fairways will… or the granite-like greens will… or the voices in your head will.

But Duval passed every test. He hit some shaky shots, sure, but he also hit some sensational ones. Just wondering: When was the last time somebody made three straight birdies late in the final round of the Open - as he did Monday at 14, 15 and 16 - to tie for the lead? You see that in other majors but almost never in this one. The conditions are just too tough.

Every single day, moreover, there was a point where Duval’s round could easily have gone ker-blooey. He was 2 over early in Round 1, 4 over early in Round 2, 2 over through seven holes in Round 3 and 4 over though three in Round 4 - and pulled himself together each time. He was like a kicker who’s been cut by so many teams he doesn’t even blink anymore when he has to boot a game-winner from 45 yards with three seconds left.

Yes, a lip-out from close range on 17 forced him to settle for a share of second with Mickelson and freefalling Ricky Barnes, but it hardly felt like a defeat. After seven years in the wilderness - existing on berries and, toward the end, his exempt status as one of the all-time leading money winners - David Duval was back among the living.

Maybe now they’ll update his head shot in the media guide - so folks will be able to recognize him. That fresh-shaved kid in the picture is long gone, but the scruffy, battle-scarred veteran who has replaced him isn’t so old that he can’t script a different ending to “The David Duval Story.”

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