Checking the leaderboard just now for opening day at the Nissan Open at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California, we find a familiar face at the very bottom. It would be hard to find a sadder story in modern professional sports than the one of David Duval and his attempt to remember how he was the number one golfer in the world just a few short months ago. David is +5 at the turn on Friday, and if function follows form he will wind up shooting at least 80 today and tomorrow and miss the cut by what might as well be a million strokes. One can only wonder what makes him keep showing up week after week. What makes him think anything is going to change? One you lose something as intrinsic as your self-confidence, it's highly unlikely that it'll just walk out of the gallery on the tenth tee one day and tap you on the shoulder, saying, "Remember me, old pal?" It's more likely that it is dead and buried and everyone else has held the funeral and moved on.
I will summarize the story of David Duval here because if anyone understands what the man is going through right this instant, it is Ian Baker-Finch. From 1997 through 2001, Duval averaged winning 2.7 million dollars a year on the PGA Tour. He won the Tour Championship in 1997, the Players Championship in 1999, the British Open in 2001, and around a dozen other tournaments along the way. In 2002, he missed eight out of 25 cuts and didn't win any tournaments. In 2003, he missed 14 out of 19 cuts and didn't come close to winning. He pocketed less than $100K that year. In 2004, he missed 6 out of 9 cuts. Thus far is 2005, he has withdrawn from one tournament after shooting 79 the first day, and missed the cut in two others. And from the looks of the results at the Nissan Open today, this trend of missing the cut is not about to change this weekend. My old friend Billy isn't contributing to E2 these days (in fact, he seems downright bitter about this place and I know that's at least one no one can blame on me), but in his writeup on Duval posted back in the summer of 2001, he ends it by saying, "David Duval's future certainly looks bright. His game's near its peak, and he's just 29 years old (at the time of the this writeup)." Let's just be kind to Duval and say that Billy might have been mistaken on this prediction.
Anyone who has ever been "good at something" will tell you that second guessing yourself is not usually a part of the "being good" process. A basketball player who is at the top of his game will not wonder, during the act, if he's going to make a free throw or a 14 ft. jump shot. A champion dart player will not be wondering, during a toss, "How will it affect my totals if I miss this triple 20?" A Cy Young award-winning pitcher will not be thinking about a beaned batter charging the mound if the ball doesn't go just where he sees it going in his mind as it leaves his hand. Even a good writer will sometimes look back on a piece after it's done and say, "Wow. Where did that come from?" When things are going well, they just flow as if you were part of some sort of efficient river. Asking "what if" or "why" is like throwing an anchor or grabbing a branch. It can only cause resistance and lead to failure to reach wherever that river was taking you.
Anyway, how did David Duval, who knocked Tiger Woods out of 41 consecutive weeks as Numero Uno in the Official World Golf Rankings and who was the first player to win over $3 million in one season on the PGA Tour, get to the point where he couldn't break 80? Here's what Ian Baker-Finch says about it:
You can always make excuses . . . , but at the end of the day he doesn't know where he's hitting it off the tee -- that's why he can't shoot a score. That's exactly what I felt. You're so hurt inside because your mind still thinks like a champion and you want to hit it the way your mind sees. You just can't do it regularly. You're never too sure when one's going to come out of the bag sideways."
How Australian of him to put it like this. In America, instead of "come out of the bag sideways," we'd just say, "You never know if you're going to shank it."
These days the golfer from Oz spends his time playing for small wagers with his friends on the course (and he plays almost every day) but makes a living talking about golf on the TV and designing golf courses for others to play. He has settled in as a full-time announcer for ABC, and does a very good job of it, as far as I can tell. One of the endearing things about Baker-Finch is that he's not put off when the subject comes up of his own Duval-like fall from grace a few years ago. It is somewhat ironic that Baker-Finch was the British Open winner in 1991, exactly ten years prior to Duval. Baker-Finch shot a remarkable final round of 66, one of the greatest final rounds ever in major championship golf. This included a 29 on the front nine, where he birdied 5 of his first 7 holes. His final 36 hole total (64-66) is the best ever by an Open Champion. So when he says, "You hurt inside because your mind still thinks like a champion," you don't have to doubt that he knows exactly what that means and that it is not an overstatement for any sort of dramatic effect.
Ian Baker-Finch was born in Queensland on October 24, 1960. He was the youngest of six kids and his dad didn't seem to mind when he quit school at age 15 to become an apprentice on the PGA program in Australia. His first win was the New Zealand Open in 1983 and the next year he was in the lead at the British Open going into the final round, but wound up shooting 79 that Sunday and getting waxed by a Spaniard named Severiano Ballesteros. All in all, Baker-Finch won sixteen Tour events on four different continents, all leading up to the British Open win in '91. At some point soon after that, the youngsters on the Tour started hitting the ball further than ever imagined previously. This was a combination of golfers working out in the weight rooms (something Walter Hagen could not have imagined in his day) and the technology of new equipment, both clubs and balls. Baker-Finch began to try to add distance to his game, and this proved to be the beginning of the end. You can see players still out there today doing exactly the same thing. Think of Corey Pavin, a small guy who is so accurate with his irons and has such a will to win that he is often called "Bulldog". Corey Pavin just can't win these days because he's hitting 3-irons to greens while the long-knockers in his group are hitting 8-irons. For non-golfers, it's a hell of a lot easier to make the ball land where you want it to with an 8-iron from 150 yards out than it is with a 3-iron from 210.
During this time of trying to increase his distance, he went from winning to being unable to make a cut. He missed 32 consecutive cuts leading to his nadir in 1997 when he shot a 92 at the British Open at Troon. Likely, no one would have noticed, but he was paired with Arnold Palmer and it was Arnie's "farewell to the Open" year -- his final time to play in golf's oldest and most respected outing. When Baker-Finch snap hooked a shot into the road on one hole, you could just see the horror on his face. That might have been the exact moment he decided to quit making a fool out of himself and go into hiding.
"I felt like I was walking naked, like the grass was taller than me. I tried to walk with my head high. It was really hard."
He cried in the locker room that afternoon. He withdrew from the tournament and never played competitive golf again. He was 35 at the time. (David Duval is currently 33.) Luckily, he has a good voice for the TV and American audiences seem to love the accents of folks such as himself, the charming Peter Alliss (the Brit usually heard at the British Open as well as the Masters) and the genuinely hilarious Irishman over at CBS, David Feherty.
So, these days, Ian Baker-Finch lives with his family in North Palm Beach, Florida, where he seems to have a perpetual smile on his face. It's nice to see someone who is willing to admit that even though the grace of the winner's circle may be in the past, there is plenty of life left to be lived and even golf left to be played. There just aren't as many folks watching you do it. And that right there might be the key to this entire mystery.