Duval driven by just one thought

Open champion could have a wardrobe of Green Jackets. Andy Farrell speaks to him
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David Duval has not won since the Open at Royal Lytham last summer, but he can claim an assist. Two weeks ago Laura Diaz won the Welch's Championship on the LPGA Tour. Diaz is one of the brightest young American women professionals but, at 26, had not won despite 12 top-10s and four second places last year.

When it comes to near-misses, Duval has got the T-shirt. He had seven seconds and 11 top-threes before his maiden win in 1997. Diaz already had a wealth of technical assistance close at hand. Her father, Ron Philo, runs the golf school at Amelia Island in Florida, where her brother and her husband, Kevin, are also instructors. But when it comes to what makes the difference between victory and merely a good finish, Diaz consulted an expert.

Her father and Duval's have been friends from school. Before joining the Seniors Tour, Bob Duval also worked for a spell with Philo at Amelia Island, just north of Duval's home town of Jacksonville. Diaz has known David Duval since the age of 12.

Last winter, Diaz plucked up courage to phone him with the question she really wanted answering. "I was curious about his workout routine," she said. "We got talking about that a little, then I asked him how he dealt with the second places."

Duval responded with another question: "When you finish second, do you feel like you won second or lost first?" After due consideration, Diaz decided the former was more often the case, second being the reward for a strong finish to the tournament. "There was a lot of encouragement in one simple question," Diaz said.

If it was a question Duval was asking himself five years ago, he answered it by winning 11 times in 18 months, culminating in a victory at the Players' Championship in 1999 that made him the world No 1. When it comes to major championships, however, there were plenty of disappointments before he whipped off his wraparound sunglasses and raised the silver claret jug last July.

Some of his near-misses in majors gave him encouragement, others irritation. Take the last four years at the Masters. He was second to Mark O'Meara in 1998 when O'Meara finished with three birdies in the last four holes. In 1999, at the peak of his form, he left himself too much to do in the final round, although his 70 was the best of the day as he finished tied for sixth, five behind Jose Maria Olazabal.

Two years ago, he was the halfway leader but ended up third, four behind Vijay Singh. Last year, he made six birdies on the front nine on the final day but then his charge stalled and a bogey at the 16th dropped him one behind Tiger Woods, whose birdie at the last gave him a two-stroke win over Duval.

"Been here before," Duval said as he opened his press conference that night. Later, in the locker room, he added: "The toughest thing about it is I've played well enough to be the four-time defending champion." Pursuit of the Green Jacket can be a dangerous thing, wearing a strait- jacket the more likely outcome.

But at Lytham, with one of the most congested leaderboards seen at a major, Duval finished with rounds of 65 and 67 to win by three strokes from Niclas Fasth. "There was a tremendous sense of achievement," Duval says now. "I had walked away from Augusta for four years feeling like I had won it a couple of times for sure and didn't get the trophy. I really knew I had it in me to win a major but, until you do it, nobody will believe you feel that way.

"The thing I felt greatest about at Lytham was not winning but how I played on Saturday and Sunday. I don't know if that makes sense, but I feel better about the way I played than winning. There were so many people near the lead but after seven holes on Sunday, I had made it up to me whether I was going to win or lose. I really managed my game as well as I have, probably ever."

Since his brief spell as the world's best player, Duval suffered a back injury in 2000 and a wrist problem last spring. This season the 30-year-old has not got going after breaking up with his fiancée and withdrawing from the final round of the Nissan Open with food poisoning. "Right now, I am still working on getting back to how I was swinging the club before the injuries," he says. "I feel pretty good about my game but if you look at the scores, it doesn't seem right. I think the main thing is that I need to start getting out of my own way, stop trying so hard, stop trying to force things and start having a little more fun. I hope getting back to Augusta will help."

He has proved he can raise his game at Augusta. "Friends have said, you've played so well there, you're going to win this year. I feel I have a good chance but it is a different year and each time you have to prepare properly and be ready to play well that week, make some putts and stuff. At the same time, after Lytham I showed up at the US PGA and felt like I had a little more swagger and felt that much better about my chances."

"Stoic" is usually the adjective associated with Duval. "If that means I'm an honest, forthright guy, I'll stick with it," he says. It is in keeping, then, that if Duval learnt anything from Lytham, it was that he was on the right lines all along. "I think there's definitely a mental hurdle that has been crossed," he says, "and a realisation of what it takes completely. I thought I knew. I actually kind of proved to myself that I did know, that I was right."