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Duval back in his element at Pebble

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. -- In the end, it was but a tease, but David Duval was hardly tormented by this close call, content to enjoy the walk in one of golf's best settings and happy to be a factor in the outcome.

The onetime No. 1 player in the world has endured the lowest of lows in a game that can be unrelentingly cruel, suffering through a fall that seemed to have no depths.

That all these years later he perseveres despite a résumé that shows so little recent success says something about his resolve.

"This is what I do," Duval said matter-of-factly after coming up one shot short of winner Dustin Johnson at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Sunday.

A cynic would suggest that Duval doesn't do it enough anymore but, really, there was little to complain about at Pebble Beach.

Moments after signing his scorecard, Duval found himself tied for the lead for the first time all day, then could do nothing as Johnson birdied the picturesque 18th to defend his title.

Johnson is just 25 and has now won in each of his three years on tour. He hits the ball a mile, and can make very good golfers look like mere mortals in his presence.

Duval remembers having that aura. He remembers rifling drives into fairways and striking iron shots with such precision that he wondered how he ever lost. Those days seem so long ago, but they are not forgotten.

"He was an extremely solid player and he struck it so flush and pure with such a penetrating ball flight through the air," said Phil Mickelson, who tied for eighth Sunday. "Had a great short game, and was so solid from 6, 8 feet in. Just hit his putts so solid that it never looked like he would miss."

It is interesting to note that Mickelson, 39, who is now ranked third in the world and was an elite player before Duval ever came on the scene, has never ascended to the No. 1 spot that Duval managed to attain for a time in 1999.

Back then, Duval, 38, appeared destined for multiple major championships and a house full of hardware.

But after winning 13 times in four years, including the 2001 British Open, the victories stopped. And his game disappeared. Through myriad injuries that led to bad habits, Duval often looked like a player who did not want to be there.

He went seven years without posting a top-10, until last year's U.S. Open, where he surprisingly tied for second, 2 shots behind winner Lucas Glover. That finish got him in this year's Masters and U.S. Open although it wasn't enough for him to retain his PGA Tour card.

And then it took another 11 events for Duval to back up that performance.

"I'm just pleased to get out of my golf game over the course of four days again what I feel like I should be getting out of it," Duval said. "I feel very comfortable in what I'm doing. And in a strange way, it makes me proud. I feel like I kind of have given the folks who have given me starts this year good firepower for what they did it. That makes me feel good, too."

Duval was referring to the fact that he has to ask for sponsor exemptions because he does not have full status after finishing 130th on the money list. He got into Pebble Beach based on an obscure exemption that gives spots to winners of the major championships and Players Championship from 2000 and prior. It was that 1999 Players victory that pushed him to No. 1 in the world.

Although Duval has often maintained that his results have not been justified by the way he played, the numbers speak for themselves this week.

For the first time since the 2001 Buick Challenge -- a tournament that no longer exists and that Duval lost in a playoff -- he shot four rounds in the 60s.

His 3-under-par 69 on Sunday was one of just seven scores in the 60s on a surprisingly difficult day. But he began the final round 6 strokes behind co-leaders Johnson and Paul Goydos, and figured a 69 would not come close.

But while the leaders struggled and nobody else made a move, Duval was 3 under on his round through 13 holes. A bogey on the par-5 14th -- where both Bryce Molder and Goydos made quadruple-bogey 9s Sunday -- seemingly ended his chances, but Duval bounced back with a birdie at the 17th.

His heart should have been pounding like the nearby surf, but Duval said being so close to the lead barely caused a ripple with him.

"Oh, I was fine. I felt fine," he said. "I've lived at the top for a long time and I was in a position where I won a lot of golf tournaments. That certainly has helped me.

"More than that, with what I've gone through and how I've had some struggles, that's even more important to me. I'm not getting worked up over having a chance to win. I was not nervous in the least. I just felt like I was doing what I should be doing, and I felt like I was where I should be."

Mickelson suggested that past experience should be an aid. "He knows he has it in him. He's done it before," Mickelson said. "I think that makes it a little easier."

But for Duval, nothing is really that simple.

"In the end, I kind of see it as this is what I do, and I'm pretty good at what I do," he said. "I've had some struggles for a while, long while, and I feel like I'm kind of getting back on top of everything how I want to. This is what I expect of myself. I expect to play well."

And yet, the facts are brutal: This was just his second top-10 finish in eight years. He entered the tournament ranked 205th in the world.

That is a lot of bad history to overcome, a lot of players to surpass.

Duval, however, remains unfazed, as if those crashing waves off Pebble's 18th green did not make a sound.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.