Duval fit for the Tiger season

He is trying to lighten up. The shades and the cap are coming off. A media consultant is working on his image
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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to David Duval? Not much, it would appear, if you exclude running around the green like a demented animal of porcine extraction at the conclusion of his Ryder Cup singles match. That bizarre episode aside, there is usually far more going on under the surface with the 28-year-old American than he likes to let on.

So while almost a year has passed since his last official victory, Duval is hoping he is better prepared than ever before now that the season is about to move into full swing, starting with this week's US Players' Championship.

With Tiger Woods getting all the attention, and Sergio Garcia whatever crumbs are left over, it would be easy to ignore the quiet man in the wraparound shades. Easy, but wrong. Woods may have a record lead at the top of the world rankings but Duval still holds second place with a points average which would leave him in the No 1 spot at any other time. Entering this weekend's Bay Hill Invitational, he was fifth on the US money list. Not bad for someone who admits he has not played his best so far thisseason.

It is just that a year ago -before Woods had started the greatest winning streak the game has seen for more than 50 years, and possibly igniting it - Duval was supreme. He won two of his first three tournaments and scored an unthinkable final-round 59 to win the Bob Hope Classic. Another impressive victory followed in the Players' Championship, while he added the BellSouth Classic a week later almost as an afterthought.

"Compared to what happened to me at the start of last year, I'm going to have a hard time in any year doing anything greater," Duval said.

At Sawgrass, just south of his home town of Jacksonville, Duval conquered the fearsome Stadium Course which was playing like Carnoustie with sunshine. The fairways were narrow, the rough thick, the greens rock-hard and the wind blowing. The victory meant he took over as the No 1 in the world and came on the same day as his father, a club pro until the age of 50, won for the first time on the Seniors Tour.

Three top 10s followed in the four majors but not the victory he seeks. Over the winter, when not snowboarding in Idaho, he worked out twice a day. The transformation in an already-toned body has been marked. When cigar-puffing, overweight Darren Clarke can beat Woods over 36 holes, perhaps Duval has overdone the physical side. He thinks not.

"I feel like, in general, if I can be a more fit and a stronger athlete, then that will translate into better golf," Duval maintained. "And I really feel like that part of preparation will be an important piece of the puzzle I need to put together to really get beyond where I've been and improve. You know, win the Masters and US Open and British Open."

Here is a man of contradictions. Duval took time off during the winter and refused to travel to Valderrama for the AmEx World Championship and yet all but one of his 11 victories have come outside the "major season" between the US Masters and the US PGA. An intelligent, thoughtful man, Duval got involved in the Ryder Cup pay-for-play controversy, eventually donating part of his charitable bonus to provide soccer fields in his home town.

At first Duval did not appear to enjoy the Ryder Cup. Then he seemed to lose himself in the hysteria at Brookline. Overall, the experience was a positive one. He will not be calling the event an "exhibition" again. It renewed his faith in the head-to-head form of the game and he reached the semi-finals of the Andersen Consulting World Matchplay before losing to Clarke. "I came in with a sour attitude last year but there is a lot to be said for going out and just concentrating on playing one other person," he said.

A satisfying scalp at La Costa was Sergio Garcia in the third round. Duval never appeared to enjoy the spotlight of being the world No 1, or to care much when Woods reclaimed his crown and Garcia became the gallery's darling with his shot at the 16th at Medinah. But Duval does not wish to be forgotten. "I'm pretty good at this game, too," he said. "It might be Sergio and Tiger as a rivalry but, right now, I'm just as much a part of it."

He is trying to lighten up. The shades and the cap come off more often. His agents at IMG have hired a media consultant to appraise his performances at press conferences. The way he was heckled by the rowdies at the Phoenix Open suggests he has some way still to go. Duval cleared out his locker after that round but relented and returned for the final day.

If Sawgrass is Duval's sort of course, then Woods has yet to prove it is his. His 10th place last year is the best of Tiger's three outings there. In any case, he knows Augusta is around the corner soon enough. Lee Westwood, however, has been fifth and sixth in the last two years, while Colin Montgomerie could have broken his duck in America at Sawgrass in 1996 had not Fred Couples received a favourable bounce at the 16th.

A brute of a course, featuring water prominently at each of the last three holes, one of the strongest fields of the year and a smoothly run operation make for a first-class tournament. With a purse of $6m (£3.75m), it is the most valuable tournament of the year with $1.08m (£675,000) to the winner. It has been going for 26 years and is a major in all but name. The serious stuff starts here.