In Masters, Duval cast as roll player

April 08, 1999|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Winning the Masters is hard enough without the burden of added pressure. Only 39 golfers have won it out of the thousands who have played professional golf. You do the math.

But winning at Augusta National becomes even harder when the entire sporting world is watching and fully expecting you to win, as is the case with David Duval this week.

No, Duval, 27, isn't calling his own shot and awarding himself his first major title before the tournament's first swing today. He's reserved, not the brash type at all. And as a pro, he knows his game's first commandment, that the odds of any golfer's winning any tournament are relatively long.

But he's still facing absurdly high, win-or-else expectations this week, the inevitable result of his remarkable run of 11 titles in his last 34 events, including four wins in eight starts in 1999.

Clearly, the timing is perfect for him to win a major and join the game's elite. "As a player, I'm basically amazed" by Duval's roll, Fred Couples said yesterday.

But that doesn't mean the Masters is over. Not by any means.

"It's like Duke playing UConn [in the NCAA tournament final]," Tom Watson said yesterday. "Duke had all the pressure. Everyone expected them to win. And UConn had no pressure. When people expect you to win, no matter what sport, it makes it harder."

Oh, sure, the best athletes still deliver in such circumstances. Mark McGwire did when he hit No. 62 on the last night of a homestand at Busch Stadium last fall. Jack Nicklaus came through as a heavy favorite repeatedly throughout his career.

And hey, Tiger Woods delivered in exactly the same conditions two years ago at the Masters. He was 21 years old and on the same kind of roll Duval is on now, raising pre-tournament expectations to unrealistic levels. But he went out and won by 12 strokes. Take that.

Duval has the solid, all-around game and fluid putting stroke needed to follow that lead and win this week. He finished second at Augusta last year, so he's already on the verge. And if any golfer can block out the immense distraction of high expectations, he's the one. His powers of concentration are superb, maybe golf's best since Nicklaus.

Still, the obstacles blocking his path this week are numerous and obstinate.

For starters, the Masters is a tournament unlike any other in that it tends to favor age, patience and knowledge more than youth and raw ability. Defending champion Mark O'Meara is 42. The Sunday afternoon leader board often features thirtysomethings and higher. Nicklaus challenged last year at age 58, for crying out loud.

None of that mattered to Woods two years ago, of course, so it might not matter to Duval, either. Then again, it might. He is in only his fourth Masters, and he didn't challenge in the first two, so he's just getting used to the place. That could prove a hindrance.

As well, Augusta National remains as it was two years ago, perfectly suited to Woods' long-driving game. He's always going to have an inside track here, for the simple reason that he can rip drives without worrying about getting into as much trouble as he does on other courses. Not even the controversial addition of rough around the fairways this year will alter that much.

Woods is down to No. 2 in the world now thanks to Duval's run of success, but he is still the best bet at Augusta as long as he's playing decently at all. He finished eighth last year despite barely hitting any greens with his irons. Remember that.

Of course, the rebuttal to all this skepticism is Duval's recent record, which simply boggles the mind. He's won two tournaments in a row and finished no worse than 18th in any start in 1999, shooting a cumulative 86-under-par, including a final-round 59 at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

He's playing way better than anyone else, including Woods. That could have a powerful effect on Sunday, Nicklaus said yesterday.

"[A hot streak] scares guys off," Nicklaus said. "When you're on [Duval's] end of the thing, it's a big plus. Right now, I can guarantee you that when David is coming down to the end, there are guys worrying about him instead of worrying about their own game. And they're going to lose when they do that."

It could happen Sunday; sure, it could. But Duval, to his credit, isn't getting caught up in the hype. Asked Tuesday if it was inevitable that he wins a major, he said: "I think it is a matter of time, yes. I think that will happen, certainly. How quickly, I don't know."

In other words, maybe not yet, despite what the rest of the world thinks.

"I think it's going to happen soon," O'Meara said.

But as soon as this Sunday?

If so, Duval will have beaten two opponents -- the other 95 golfers in the field and a weighty load of great expectations.

Pub Date: 4/08/99

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