Abject helplessness: Golf afflicts us all, including Duval, former No. 1 in the world

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Any golfer knows the feeling only this most capricious of sports can inflict: that is, abject helplessness.

No matter your skill level, no matter how well you are playing at the time, you know it’s out there. You know what can happen. Drives can start going this way and that – and off the course. Iron shots can be topped, pulled, and, worst of all, shanked. Putts look as if they are going dead in the center of the hole and then lip out. You can hit what seems the most perfect shot of your life and then a gust of wind blows the ball into a sand trap, where your ball embeds and you have no shot.

PGA Tour

David Duval

You are out there all alone. Sometimes, it can seem, you lose touch with yourself: What just happened? Did my hands just do that? And there are no relief pitchers in golf. There are no backup quarterbacks. It’s just you, your sticks, the scorecard and a pencil.

David Duval, once the world’s top-ranked golfer, knows the feeling. Oh, my heavens, does Duval know the feeling.

Thursday, at the British Open, Duval shot a 91. That’s 20 shots over par. That’s two over even bogey. That won’t win the fifth flight at your club championship.

This from a guy that won the British Open by three shots 18 years ago. This from the only guy who was ranked No. 1 in the world when Tiger Woods was in his prime.

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Duval’s fall from No. 1 to oblivion was rapid. He was the tour’s leading money winner in 1998. He won The Open in 2001. By 2003, he ranked No. 211 on the PGA money list. It only got worse.

Rick Cleveland

He suffered physical ailments – back, shoulder, wrist. For a time, he suffered vertigo. He had personal issues, family issues.

Things seemed to get better in 2006 when he finished tied for 16th at the U.S. Open and shot the low round of the tournament. He came to Jackson in 2007 to play in what was then the Viking Classic. He did not contend, but he shot four straight sub-par rounds and made a check. He called his play that week “encouraging.” But he was not ready to say he was on his way back. Too much had happened by then.

Turns out, he was not back. Not close. His last year of playing the PGA Tour on a regular basis was 2014. His best finish was a 25th at New Orleans. He is playing the British Open on a past champion’s exemption.

He is 47 years old, two years younger than Phil Mickelson and four years older than Tiger Woods. Jack Nicklaus, we should all remember, won The Masters at age 46.

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So, how does a former No. 1 in the world shoot a 91? Well, for one thing, he makes a 14. Duval did that on the par-5 seventh hole. He lost three balls off the tee. He played a wrong ball from the rough. He took so many shots, the scorer had a hard time adding them up. His score was first recorded as a 13, changed to a 15 and then back to a 14 once his round was over. That’s a nonuple bogey if you are keeping score. It was a “god-awful nightmare” in Duval’s own words.

The rest of his round wasn’t so hot either. Nine-over par on one hole leaves 11-over par for the rest of the round. He also recorded a quadruple bogey and a triple bogey.

And here’s how capricious golf is: Duval, who said he played well in practice rounds leading up to The Open, birdied the first two holes of the tournament. That’s golf.

Sports writers learn over time that often the best stories aren’t in the winner’s locker room. Many times, the loser’s stories are more poignant. That was the case with Duval, who could have quit after the 14. He could have withdrawn from the tournament and not posted the embarrassing 91. Instead, he played it out. You ask me, that’s admirable. And then he talked about it.

“You have an obligation as a professional athlete,” Duval told reporters. “If you play, you post your score. Am I happy with that? Is there some embarrassment to it? I don’t know. But I teed off in the Open and I shot 91. So put it on the board.”

Duval played again Friday. He shot 78. He parred the dreaded seventh hole. He played the back nine one-under par. He posted his score. He finished what he started. Good for him.