LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — The last time he played this course on the northwest coast of England, David Duval was cheered by thousands as he made a celebratory walk up the 18th hole to claim his first major championship. The British Open was his, the rivalry with Tiger Woods was back on, and even the wraparound glasses couldn’t hide his delight in having finally won a big one.
Further proof that golf can be a fickle and cruel game came Wednesday, when Duval played his way around the links at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, a solitary figure accompanied only by his stepson and caddie. Fans filling the bleachers on the fourth green were so unimpressed most of them turned their backs to watch Lee Westwood play up the third fairway rather than watch Duval hit shots into the green.
Hard to blame them. It’s never pretty watching someone who once was a champion struggle with what he is now. And what Duval is now is a 40-year-old who hasn’t won a thing since his Open victory in 2001. He struggles mightily just to make the cut at most tournaments, and struggles just as much to explain why.
"I love playing the game. I’m really good at it," Duval said. "But there’s times when I feel like – it’s like enough is enough. And I don’t mean golfwise, but I mean talking about it. It’s like kicking a dead horse. We know what’s happened."
What’s happened is Duval has mostly disappeared from competitive golf. Once the No. 1 player in the world, he has made only two cuts this year in 13 tournaments, earning a grand total of $26,696. His first trip to Lytham since winning the Open by three shots in 2001 doesn’t figure to last more than a few days unless he somehow finds the magic that’s eluded him for most of the last decade.
Duval blames injuries, and he listed enough of them Wednesday to fill a medical textbook. He has bone bruises on his knees, tendonitis in his shoulders, elbows and wrist. At one point he had vertigo, and he’s long had back problems.
He doesn’t like talking about this; at times, he doesn’t seem to like talking about anything. Brought into the media tent for the obligatory last-player-to-win-at-Lytham interview, Duval bristled at a few questions and lobbed back a few of his own.
But he ended up answering them all, some with the kind of detail that few of the robotic players who have a chance at winning the Open this week would ever dare. He talked about not only his golf but his life, and even his hope of playing the senior tour in another 10 years.
He also talked – somewhat reluctantly – about Woods, whose private jet he shared back to the U.S. after Woods won at St. Andrews in 2000.
"We were decent friends 10 years ago, 12 years ago. We talked a fair amount," Duval said. "Now? No. I don’t … are we friends? I guess so. We don’t talk."
It couldn’t have been comfortable, and at times he stammered and squirmed when asked about what might have been. But it seemed to come from the heart, and not some formula written up by an agent.
"I’m an incredibly, incredibly wealthy man. I’ve got a wife that loves me. I love her," Duval said. "I think she hung the moon. Maybe it’s not cool to say, but I think she hung the moon. The kids are wonderful. You know, they’re a pain in the rear like everybody else’s kids sometimes, but we have fun. They’re high-energy. They like to do stuff. And we’ve just had a lot of fun over the last nine years of being together. I’ve been lucky."
Lucky everywhere but the golf course. Duval’s free fall from the top has been startling, as if winning the Open at the age of 29 satisfied all of his competitive desires. Outside of a good run at the U.S. Open in 2009 – where he tied for second at Bethpage – he hasn’t been a factor for years in tournaments he was once expected to win.
Duval doesn’t enjoy being reminded of it, doesn’t want to believe his best golf is past. The years are going by, though, and the player once described as being as thin as a 1-iron is now a bit on the chunky side, with aches and pains that never seem to disappear. On the days Duval does seem to strike the ball well, his putter fails him, as it did last week at the John Deere where he missed another cut.
He made a point of saying he was out in the rain hitting balls on the driving range for two hours Tuesday, perhaps to emphasize he still works hard and the game still means something. He believes he can still play at a high level, and says most of his problems stem from trying to do too much with a balky body.
"I think on two occasions I took extended time off, but in hindsight the big mistake I made in my career was not stopping sometime in early 2002 and probably not playing again until ’04," Duval said. "I should have taken at least a year, maybe more, off. Just made sure everything kind of got healed, protected my confidence, protected my golf game and just given away that year and a half, not give away eight years like I did."
That’s all ancient history now, a fact Duval readily acknowledges.
But he can hope his game isn’t ancient history, too.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.