James Lawton: David Duval's long journey of self-awareness points way for Luke Donald

Britain's world No 1 is putting a huge weight on his own shoulders with each missed major target

Royal Lytham

There was a time, a short but coruscating time, when David Duval was – in his dark shades and surgical shot-making – golf's natural-born killer. He was the world No 1, even as the young Tiger Woods was building his empire, and he won the last Open played here 11 years ago with a panache that went straight into the legends of a great course.

This was the point of redemption when his game, and for some time his life, fell apart. He could always tell himself that before the darkness there was that most vital shaft of light, the illumination which comes when you win a major tournament.

Yesterday, the 40-year-old Duval went back to that old glory, talked about how it was to own the Claret Jug for a year – and at the same time he warned Luke Donald, Britain's world-ranked No 1, that it may be a lot later than he thinks.

Donald, 34, bridles under the suspicion that, like his compatriot Lee Westwood, he may do everything in golf except win a major but he is unlikely to be soothed by Duval's ice-cold analysis of his situation.

Donald, says Duval, is putting a huge weight on his own shoulders with each missed major target.

"The sooner you can do it the better," said the American on the eve of the 141st Open. "I think the longer it drags on the harder it gets, the more you get it in your own head and the more you press and the more you think about it.

"I don't think there is any way you could argue other than that, I really don't, not in making an honest argument.

"You can talk all you want but the longer it goes on, the harder it gets and the more self-doubt there is, whether you admit it or not."

Earlier this week Donald, who last year performed the extraordinary double of finishing top money-maker on the American and European tours, was citing the potential inspiration of the late Seve Ballesteros, a double winner here whose sublime ability to hit recovery shots from the most unlikely places earned the sneering accolade of "car park champion" from US Open winner Hale Irwin.

Donald declared: "Seve was known as someone who would hit wild off the tee and use his short game to get out of trouble. No matter where he was, he felt like he could hole a shot. I've got to go into this tournament with that kind of fun attitude, that no matter how I'm hitting it there is always a way to make a score.

"I think that should give me some heart. I have not always been known as the guy who hits it consistently from tee to green but I have a great short game. I have great skills to get the ball in the hole no matter how I'm playing."

The worry is not only that Donald, despite the sustained heat of the form that has taken him to the top of the rankings for the best part of a year, has failed to win a major. He has scarcely made a mark on one.

Duval was drawn into the debate when he was asked to predict the next world No 1. He nominated his 26-year-old countryman Webb Simpson, who made his major breakthrough by winning the US Open last month in his fourth year on the big tour.

"I named him," Duval explained, "because of the confidence he has right now. I'm not saying he's necessarily going to win five major championships and be world No 1 for the next three years. I say him because of the confidence which comes with what he has just accomplished.

"There's a point at which you go up and down the driving range knowing that you are not going to see a whole range of difference between how players play, how they hit the golf ball. You're going to see different distances the ball gets hit but it is the player with the extra confidence who is the one with the advantage.

"I'm not talking about the mechanics of golf. I don't think he's better than some other players but he's won – and so of course he knows what it is all about."

No one knew it much better than Duval when in a brilliant staccato burst he won 13 USA titles, including the Open, and the best part of $20m. He was the gunfighter who came into the saloon and shot the lights out for the sheer hell of it.

He was distant at times, but then he carried quite a bit of baggage. He had a troubled youth, gave bone marrow to his elder brother in a failed attempt to save his life, saw his father, a golf coach, drift out of the family's life.

Yesterday, he talked with a haunting eloquence about the dislocation he sometimes felt when he came off the golf course. He had an eight-year relationship but confessed that mostly he felt alone.

Now, he says, he is much happier. He is married to a woman who, he says, "hung out the moon" for him, has five children, two of them biological, three of them inherited, and he says that if he has any regrets it is only that he didn't walk away from the golf course for a couple of years when his crisis of confidence wrecked his game over eight years.

"Now I feel," he says, "I'm not just hitting balls in the rain for myself. I'm doing it for my family because I can believe in what I'm doing. It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to happen again, but I'm going to do everything I can to make it happen – and be prepared to play well and maybe play great golf.

"The truth is I have worked my tail off. Unfortunately, I've had multiple nagging little injuries. I have tendonitis in both shoulders. I've got it in my elbows. I have bone bruises on my knees right now. I have a back problem. I've had tendonitis in my wrist. I have had vertigo." He laughs and shrugs and adds, "So, I mean there's a laundry list of problems. And you know, frankly, that stuff can wreck your golf game.

"There are great things about wonderful athletes, wonderful golfers and football players, whatever it may be, but the big detriment is that sometimes we're not smart enough to stop. Our egos think we can just play and get through it. I did that and all it did was get worse and worse and wreck my golf game and my confidence.

"The big mistake I made in my career was not stopping sometime in early 2002 and probably not playing again until '04. I should have taken at least a year off, maybe more, and just made sure everything kind of got healed, protected my confidence, and moved on after just giving away that year and a half – and not giving away eight years like I did."

Duval nurses the past as though it is a bird with a broken wing. It flew so high, so brilliantly, and he admits it is sometimes haunting when you play the game quite beautifully but without getting airborne.

Most important, though, is to live in the moment and it warms him to remember how well he invaded the one that came to him here in 2001. He was 29 years old at the time, five years younger than Luke Donald is today, and so it is hard not to believe that he is eminently qualified to point at the clock.

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