Golf - US Masters: Duval made to measure

The Masters: Augusta is the final proving ground where new world No 1 can reinforce his standing; Andy Farrell finds golf's quiet man is itching for a new jacket
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The Independent Online
THE NIGHT David Duval won a tournament in the shockingly indecent manner of breaking 60 in the final round, his father Bob left a message on his answerphone. "OK, I just watched you make an eagle on the last hole for 59," Bob Duval said. "What are you going to do for an encore now? What's left?"

"How about a Masters?" came the reply when David rang back. Once it would have sounded like the arrogant, cocky college star who was struggling to win his first tournament on the US tour. But now that people know the 27-year-old American better, the focused, self-reliant, goal-oriented winner of the Players' Championship can be given the benefit of the doubt.

Duval's image change and his run of 10 victories in 33 events - following seven seconds in his first 86 tournaments - are inexorably linked. When he won the Mercedes Championship by nine strokes at the start of the year, the US tour commissioner Tim Finchem joked he might have to slip Duval a couple of million dollars to stay at home or things might get boring. They have been anything but.

First the 59 at the Bob Hope Classic, then the Players' win to overtake Tiger Woods at the top of the world rankings. That the victory came in his home town and on the same day that his father won his maiden title on the Seniors tour were bonuses.

Others might have thought them distractions. Not Duval. Were there moments he thought about his father last Sunday? "No, it really didn't happen. And I hope my dad wasn't thinking about me. If he was, his head wasn't in the right place."

The Duval package includes driving the ball long and straight, like Greg Norman in the early Nineties but longer; holing the four-footers like Tom Watson in his prime; and focusing like Jack Nicklaus. On the course, in his wraparound sunglasses, all that makes Duval appear a cold fish.

"A friend of mine came up to me at Pebble Beach as I was walking from a green to the next tee and said, `hello', but when she brought it up a week later, I had no idea she had spoken to me. When I am concentrating well, I block everything out. I have learned the best way to maximise my ability is not to get too high or too low. Just go about my business and forget what is around me."

But off the course, players and media alike are starting to warm to his slightly ironic sense of humour. "I am not a reluctant participant in people getting to know me. I am eager, really. I try to be as forward and honest as I can but that doesn't mean I am going to tell you everything."

Duval might take some getting to know only because he is not your typical sports jock. Most of his friends inhabit a world far away from the parochial golf circuit. He reads between 20 and 30 books a year - he has just finished The Making of the Atomic Bomb. His Christmas present request from his girlfriend, Julie McArthur, was the 20-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary. "People are making a big deal out of what I have done, but that's nothing compared to the 10 years they took to compile."

Apart from fly fishing, Duval's main hobby is snowboarding, something he does at a hideaway frequented by Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis called Sun Valley in Idaho. He is a high handicapper at the sport. "You have to have a couple of screws loose to do some of the stuff people do on those things. I wear a helmet and thumb guard but if I break a leg, I'd rather do it snowboarding than slipping on a cart path."

One thing Duval talks little about, only because he does not want to waste time analysing it, is the effect on him of the events set in motion when he was nine years old. Duval provided bone marrow tissue for a transplant to his elder brother, but Brent died from blood-poisoning complications. Their mother, Diane, admitted she had never got over a broken heart and she and Bob subsequently separated and divorced. Bob has since remarried, but father and son did not talk for a while.

Neither last Sunday's win, nor the 59, have overshadowed Duval's first victory in October 1997. "The day I won in Williamsburg is still one of the greatest days of golf I have ever had. I put all the questions behind me that day. I knew I could do it, but I had to prove it to everyone else. I really still embrace that day but last Sunday is right up there next to it."

Being No 1 in the world has not been a goal. Typically, he is after something far more lofty. "I do want to be considered, at some point in my career, as the best player in the game. I don't have a personal agenda other than to try to leave the game better than when I came to it.

"I think you can do that by being a good role model, conducting yourself as a professional, acting like a gentleman when you are playing, working as best you can with the people involved with the game and really trying to enhance the image of it."

First, though, is the Masters this week. "I have a Tournament of Champions [this year's Mercedes event] where everyone in the field is a winner, a Tour Championship, which is for those who have played the best over a year, and now the Players'. So I know how to win against the best fields. It is a matter of being ready, being on my game and playing well. There is no guarantee, but I have proven I can do it.

"Yes, for a major, there will obviously be some nervousness, but I was probably more nervous last week. The Masters won't be any tougher than Sawgrass. Last week's tournament is not considered a major, but it might be.

"It is one of the best tournaments in the world. It was taxing, you had to be precise, not let up, just like at an Open or a Masters. The greens were as fast and, dare I say, even harder than they will be at Augusta and to convert all those four- to six-footers like I did gives me a lot of confidence."