Duval rediscovers the reality of hope after embarrassing descent into despair

Even in the worst of his times, and they were severe enough because no major golfer ever fell so fast and so hard, David Duval insisted that one day he would again play golf that did not provoke a gut-wrenching desire to hide in embarrassment.

He may still be wrong. The sight of him disappearing into an azalea bunch on the 13th certainly awakened all the old fears. Yet here at the 69th Masters, in time stolen from skies broiling with thunder and lightning, there were some moments of hope.

You couldn't know how long they would last, and perhaps Duval least of all, but there was a brief reality that even a few weeks ago would have sounded like the cruellest mockery.

It showed Duval at the top of the leaderboard. It was, after all the withering of his talent since he represented the most serious threat to the supremacy of Tiger Woods and carried off the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham four years ago, a small but identifiable miracle.

He went two under over the first nine, and though two bogeys cancelled out the birdies as he came to the turn and the mishap at the 13th carried him to three over, he could again lift up his head. He had looked, for a little while like a real golfer, a man who might just be involved in a serious dispute for the great prizes of the game. It was a hint that might just move him towards a little conviction.

There is, anyway, a huge gap between that flickering of belief and the kind of statistics he carried to the start of yesterday's tournament. His record in seven PGA tournaments: six missed cuts, one withdrawal. At the Bob Hope Chrysler he soared to 30-over after two rounds. This wasn't decline. This was a step into the void, and at the time he said: "Golf is a darned hard game you know, and sometimes the struggle is very tough indeed. But believe me, I know I can come through this."

Yesterday there was fragile foothold in a major tournament ­ a dramatic improvement on his appearance at the Open last summer. He went to Troon, practised, agonised and then couldn't face the challenge of walking to the first tee. He flew home alone and on the point of defeat.

As play started here he was a stark point of contrast in all the talk of the Fabulous Four or Five. Before the trials of the Tiger, a volatile and highly frustrating one yesterday, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and a serious misfiring Ernie Els, there was first the halt and the lame and the hurting.

None carried with them so vividly the hard evidence of big-time golf's inherent cruelties as the group led by Britain's Ryder Cup hero Paul Casey and including Duval.

The young man from Surrey who had the raw nerve to say that in certain competitive circumstances disliking an American is not the hardest thing to do was also joined by Larry Mize, who as a hometown boy making spectacularly good beat Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros on his way to the green jacket in 1987.

His play-off chip into the 11th hole was an instant moment of Masters' legend, but for the past four years it has been supplanted by a nightmare of humiliation for the 48-year-old proud Georgian.

Mize each time failed to beat the cut. An invasion of the spirit this, no doubt, but then Casey's other companion on the first tee had fallen even further into the mire of self-doubt. Duval's return to the action gave the tournament its first touch of authentic human drama ­ as opposed to the sad pantomime exploits of the beaten old Billy Casper.

As Duval teed up, an American friend said: "David has been through terrible times on the course, but he has got his focus again. He is a happy in his personal life and he thinks he can see a way back. The important thing is that he has got his life ­ and maybe his priorities ­ in good working order." Certainly he had retained, or maybe hauled back, one of the key assets of a pro... the ability to produce the ugliest of pars. Duval arrived at the first tee with just a minute to spare, inevitably creating speculation that again he had looked into the skull of his old glory and blinked once more. There was thus a cheer of relief when he addressed the ball as though he was a latecomer urgently clocking on at a local factory. However, the result was not so comforting. Duval sent his drive off sent into the fringe of the rough, left his second short of the green and then managed with his rolling putt to leave himself with what looked, in view of all that had gone on before, with a certain bogey. However, Duval's battered nerve held and he sank a 10-foot putt.

Casey, who in view of the public relations disaster when he announced that in the context of the Ryder Cup he found it easy to hate the American opposition must have been pleased with his respectful reception ­ not his bogey at the first. Still less, the grotesque disaster that overtook him at the 13th ­ a ballooning 10.

Last year, in his first Masters, he finished a buoyant sixth and what happened yesterday was a catastrophe to make him think again ­ especially after his recent victory in the TCL Classic in China.

One cynic said that on this form he could at least forget about his fears of prolonged heckling. In the southland good manners work against such a practice. Also, who would recognise him? While Casey and Duval fought so desperately, there was no question about the day's most serene moment.

It came when Jack Nicklaus, perhaps at the start of his last Masters, saved par quite brilliantly at the first hole, then coolly made birdie. You could hear the roars in very corner of Augusta National. On a glowering, tense day, this was the sweet reassurance of the golfing ages. Here was one man at least who had absolutely nothing to prove.

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