Duval's Next Hurdle: Tiger Woods

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PINE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (AP) — David Duval needed only one week to answer two critical questions about his career — his back is fine, and so is his game.

The next hurdle could take a little longer.

While Duval made a spectacular return by winning the Buick Challenge, Tiger Woods was in the middle of his vacation.

``We all know Tiger Woods is the best player in the game, and that he's better prepared than everyone else,'' Duval said. ``You can talk about it until you're blue in the face, but somebody's got to go out there and do something about it.''

Maybe that somebody will be Duval.

Strong enough to finish a tournament for the first time since the British Open because of a sprained ligament in his back, Duval made 16 birdies during the weekend, including three on the final four holes, for a two-stroke victory over Nick Price and Jeff Maggert.

It was his first victory of a season that, until Sunday, had been a lost cause.

And there are still miles of ground to cover.

While Duval was flat on his back for six weeks while recuperating in Idaho, Woods won three of the four tournaments he played — the PGA Championship, the World Golf Championship event at Firestone and the Canadian Open.

Duval won for the first time in 29 tournaments, dating to the BellSouth Classic in the spring of 1999. During that span, Woods won 16 times, including five majors, and nearly as much money as Duval has made in his career.

``That's OK,'' Duval said. ``Eighteen months ago, everyone was asking what's wrong with Tiger. Memories are short out here, as they are in every sport.''

Eighteen months ago, Duval was the toast of golf.

While Woods was still trying to sort through an overhaul of his swing, Duval won 11 times in a span of 34 tournaments and rose to No. 1 in the world by winning The Players Championship in his hometown.

Now, he is so far behind Woods in the world ranking that Duval concedes — and a computer in London confirms — that it will be at least two years before he can close the gap. His victory at Callaway Gardens only solidified his spot at No. 3.

While Ernie Els was a runner-up in the first three majors this year, and Phil Mickelson has already won three times this year, Duval's 11 victories over 18 months is reason to believe he has the best chance of trying to slow Woods' assault on the record books.

That will have to wait until next year, when a new season begins with a full slate of major championships before them. Duval, though, seemed eager to get started.

``I'll do everything I can to be prepared,'' he said. ``There's a lot of golf left this year that is important to me.''

That starts Thursday with the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill, where he has won two of the last three years. After the Presidents Cup, Duval ends the year with the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.

And after playing in Woods' unofficial tournament in California, Duval will join him for the World Cup in Argentina. As the No. 1 player in the world, Woods got to choose his teammate, and Duval validated the selection Sunday.

But the real challenge starts next year.

``I definitely see this offseason as some soul searching for a lot of people,'' Hal Sutton said recently. ``There are some people with a great deal of talent out there that need to find a way to challenge Tiger Woods.''

No one has ever questioned Duval's talent, which was on display at Callaway Gardens. His short game was surprisingly sharp for being off such a long time, and he routinely dug into the thick rough with plenty of power, and no pain.

After four days of sound golf, no one should question his health.

``Today was the best I've felt in a long, long time,'' Duval said. ``I'm finally playing without an injury. I feel like I was lost for a while. Everything that happened ... bounced the wrong way for me. This makes me feel great about the rest of the year.''