Duval Knows Putts Make a Difference

Tuesday, May 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

To watch Tiger Woods hole a sand wedge from 99 yards for eagle, then make a spirited charge up the leaderboard, brought back memories for the guy he was playing with in the final round of the Byron Nelson Classic.

David Duval used to know the feeling. Lately, all he can do is watch.

High noon Sunday in Texas brought Woods and Duval together alone in a final round for the first time, significant only because they are the top two players in the world ranking.

Of course, the point differential between No. 1 and No. 2 is analogous to the scores they posted on the TPC at Las Colinas — a 63 for Woods, who missed the three-man playoff by one stroke; a 70 for Duval, who was never a factor and tied for 20th.

The real difference is not as vast as it looks on a scorecard.

Other than the new duds and reshaped body, Duval is virtually the same player who last year had a lot of Tiger-like qualities.

He won four times before the Masters. He made up seven strokes in the Bob Hope Classic with the only final-round 59 in PGA Tour history. He holed an 8-iron from the first fairway for eagle at Pebble Beach before his comeback bid was cut short by rain. And he was ranked No. 1 in the world.

There's just one exception.

Remember that 59? This year, Duval would have turned it into a 66.

``There's not a lot I could have done, except make the putts,'' he said a day after missing a lot of them — again — in the Nelson Classic. ``I think it will balance out and I'll make them. I just don't know when.''

Duval spoke from an office in The Ballpark at Arlington, where he tried an entirely different line of clothing — a Texas Rangers uniform, taking batting practice before going over to Colonial, the second of three straight tournaments.

Looking over the dimensions of The Ballpark, Duval figured he could hit sand wedge over the fence in right field, but ``I'd probably need a pitching wedge or a 9-iron to center.''

Put a putter in his hand, and it would roll foul.

If the putts fell like they did last year, there might not have even been a playoff in the Mercedes Championship between Woods and Ernie Els. Duval finished four strokes back, but missed a month's worth putts from 10 feet and in.

And while his bid to win the Masters sunk in Rae's Creek on the 13th hole, what really cost him was his putter. He missed from 3 feet on No. 7 on Saturday, and when he returned to the course Sunday morning to finish the third round, birdie putts from 6 feet and 8 feet on the last four holes lipped out.

The Nelson Classic was no different. During one six-hole stretch in the middle of his final round, Duval had five birdie putts of 12 feet or less. He made one of them.

``I could have easily shot 62,'' he said.

He could have easily been like Tiger.

``Unfortunately for David, he just didn't seem to make the putts,'' Woods said. ``He had so many beautiful putts that just skirted the edge. It's just a matter of time before they start falling. I told him, 'They are going to fall in bunches.'''

That's the way it used to be for Duval and winning. He was a runner-up seven times before getting his first victory in 1997, and then he won 10 times in his next 33 tournaments. Through it all, Duval kept his poise.

Staying patient through this nasty stretch might not be so easy, especially since he knows what he's missing — victories — and he's not sure what he can do to get them.

``You work on your speed, the pace, the stroke,'' he said. ``But it's not like I'm putting poorly. I'm just not making as many as I'm used to making.''

The statistics bear that out. A year ago, Duval was third in greens in regulation, seventh in total driving (distance and accuracy) and 10th in putting. This year, he is first in total driving, second in greens in regulation, and 102nd in putting.

Fixing a faulty putting stroke is one thing. What may drive Duval to eat a double cheeseburger are putts that look perfect until they slide by the hole. Duval used to coolly bend over and pick his ball out of the cup. Now, he buckles his knees and looks bewildered.

This is particularly agonizing because Duval is a big believer that golf essentially is a putting contest.

``I can promise you, the guy who won the tournament didn't hit the ball better than I did,'' he said. ``It just illustrates how important putting is. You cannot win tournaments if you don't make the putts.''

Right now, no one understands that better.