After years of wandering in professional golf’s wilderness, David Duval is not ready to party like it’s 1999.
Not only would it be premature, despite Thursday’s stunning 66 in the opening round of the HP Byron Nelson Championship, but Duval’s aching right elbow would object to all the gyrations on the dance floor.
The recurring pain almost caused Duval to withdraw less than 30 minutes before Thursday’s tee time at the Four Seasons Resort. But because tournament berths are scarce for Duval these days, he opted to stay — even though his son Deano drove him back to the hotel after Wednesday’s practice session when Duval could not.
“I was like, ‘I can’t drive a car. I can’t use my right arm,’ ” said Duval, who finally began feeling the benefits of Tuesday’s pain-killing and anti-inflammatory injection shortly before the start of his opening round. “I’m lucky to have had it feel better as the day went on [Thursday]. I’m not 100 percent by any stretch. But it’s 1,000 percent better than it was.”
Thursday’s 4-under effort at the TPC course marked Duval’s best round of the season and left him one stroke off the Nelson pace being set by Sweden’s Peter Hanson (65). It included two chip-in birdies and eight one-putt greens, as well as a 16-foot birdie from off the green at No. 9.
Afterward, Duval said he was “tickled pink” by both his score and the lack of pain in his right elbow. Whether either can continue at Thursday’s pace for 72 holes is a question no one, including Duval, can answer.
“It’s a legitimate question,” Duval said. “It’s not like I’ve played great golf for a while.”
That qualifies as an understatement. Duval’s golf game is nowhere near the level it was when he topped the world golf rankings in 1999 or won the 2001 British Open, his most recent of 13 career triumphs on the PGA Tour.
Among the well-documented reasons for his extended slide: mental burnout, multiple injuries and a family-first focus as he and his wife, Susie, have raised their five children in their Denver home.
But none of that can fully explain how far Duval, 42, has fallen in professional golf circles since he helped the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team rally for a historic victory. That came just months after firing a tour-record 59 in the final round to win the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.
Duval earned a career-high $3.6 million in 1999, with four victories. He topped $2.8 million in 2001, when he claimed the claret jug at the British Open.
Yet the numbers, over the past 12 seasons, read like misprints. Duval has made the cut in just 30.7 percent of his tour events since the start of the 2003 season (61 of 202). He has not held a lead after any round in any PGA Tour event since the 2002 season. He posted a 74.2 scoring average last year, when he survived only one cut and earned $6,210 on the 2013 PGA Tour.
In his darkest seasons, Duval made 1 of 20 cuts in 2005, when he banked just $7,630, and 3 of 17 cuts in 2012, when he collected $32,936. Despite moments of temptation, he never walked away from the game. Through it all, he always hoped for more days like Thursday, when his son/caddie Deano manned the bag and Duval collected six birdies, including four in his final five holes.
Duval said recent efforts with Dallas-based swing instructor Chris O’Connell, as well as a move to black horn-rimmed glasses in lieu of contact lenses, have helped bring back the birdie barrages.
“The glimmers of great play I’ve shown over the course of a few years were simply that, glimmers,” Duval said. “I was delusional about how I was playing. As I started working on my game with Chris and he started to help me swing the golf club like I used to, I realized I wasn’t close to playing well.
“There’s a difference now. I’m swinging well and hitting quality golf shots and I’m doing good things.”
Duval did enough of them Thursday to inspire hope, a commodity he has had in short supply in recent seasons. He even left the media room with thoughts about a return visit, provided his elbow pain is in the rearview mirror.
“I’m hoping that through more rounds of golf like this, we’ll become reacquainted again,” said Duval, a media-room regular throughout the height of his career.
Bottom line: It’s a long way from 1999 in David Duval’s world. But his golf game, for one sun-splashed afternoon, brought back some of those memories Thursday at the Byron Nelson.