LA QUINTA, Calif. -- There are four major champions and 22 PGA Tour winners in the field this week at the PGA Tour Q-school at PGA West. But there is only one player here who has ever been the No. 1 player in the world.
David Duval looks very much like he did when he eagled the 72nd hole of the Arnold Palmer course to shoot a 59 and win the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. The wide hips and dark sunglasses are still with the man who won 13 tournaments, including the British Open, in a five-year stretch from 1997 to 2001.
On Friday, Duval, now 40, sported all black clothes and a scraggly reddish beard during a third round that started off promisingly. He was 4-under for the day on the tough Stadium course, but he went 5 over on his last three holes. Water balls on the 17th and 18th led to double-bogeys. He shot a 1-over par 73 and after 54 holes of the 108-hole marathon that is Q-school, his 1-over total doesn't leave him with any room for error over the last three days.
For the third day in a row, Will Claxton has a share of the lead. After a 3-under-par 69 on the Stadium course, he is alone at the top of the leaderboard at 13-under. Playing the Nicklaus Tournament Course, Chris Tidland and Lee Williams both aced the par-3, 154-yard eighth hole Friday.
After his round, Duval was in no mood to talk.
"There is not much to say," he said. "I had a tough finish."
That finish on a calm and good day for scoring at PGA West typifies the state of Duval's game over the past several years. For some time now he has run hot and cold on the golf course, as if the good fortune he had was only a prelude to a sad ending.
"David was playing nicely today. He had a nightmare finish, which is too bad," said Daniel Chopra, who played with Duval on Friday and shot a 1-under 71.
"Golf is such a mental sport. It's all about confidence. If you don't have it, the greatest player in the world can play as poorly as a 6-handicapper. The longer you play poorly, the worse your confidence gets. The golf ball doesn't know your name or your reputation."
Just a decade ago, no one could have imagined this would be Duval's lot in the game. The former Georgia Tech star wasn't simply on the scene to offer a brief diversion from the reign of Tiger Woods.
Still in his late 20s when he won the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Duval was supposed to beat Tiger and Phil and all comers for the next decade. But then his game left him suddenly through a rut of injuries and swing changes that ravaged his confidence. Between 2003 and 2010, he made just 45 cuts out of the 146 tournaments he entered. Through Tiger's struggles over the past two years, many wondered if it was possible for him to decline as much as Duval, who was now struggling to simply keep his playing privileges on the PGA Tour.
Coming to Q-school for a player of Duval's stature is a very humbling choice. While ultimately the tournament represents hope for a future on the PGA Tour, it also connotes a failure for many who couldn't cut it on the regular tour. Although golf has the Nationwide Tour and the mini tours as its minor leagues, nothing in sports surpasses the one-shot dream of Q-school. In the NFL, players get cut when they can no longer perform at a high level. NBA players go to Europe and Asia. A golfer has a chance every year to come to Q-school to try to save his career.
It would have been easy for Duval to leave the game before the disappointments started to pile up like old golf towels. No one could have begrudged him for leaving the game near the top with the good memories of his game at the forefront of his legacy. But Duval is a competitor.
Puggy Blackmon, Duval's coach at Georgia Tech who is now the Director of men's and women's golf at University of South Carolina, has been trying to help his former player find the golf swing that vaulted him to the top of the game in the late 1990s. Duval had reached out to Blackmon before the Masters in 2006 when his game had reached rock bottom. The coach, who has been doing video recordings of Duval's swing since he was a junior golfer, knows that strong-gripped golf swing with the shut face as well as anyone.
"I always took the video," Blackmon said, "because if David ever got off we would have something to go back to for reference.
"David had gotten away from the great golf swing that his dad had taught him. His dad is very much a feel player and teacher. I'm a technician. I was able to go back to old tape and show him where he used to be and where he had gotten."
Blackmon recalls the days back in 2005 when Duval couldn't find the fairway with his driver. In his prime, Duval hit a masterful cut with his driver that took out the left side of the golf course. But his once compact swing had grown longer and he was hitting it right and left.
"You can have a yippy putter. But if you have a yippy driver and can't put the ball in play, it's hard to play the game," Blackmon said.
By the 2010 Wyndham Classic, Blackmon said, Duval's ball striking was back and everybody could see it. He started to trust the changes that he was making in his swing. He's gotten the speed and accuracy back in his driver. He has gone from being short to fairly long for a 40-year-old guy. He's improved the trajectory on his wedge shots.
In April at the Zurich in New Orleans, Duval put a belly putter in play in an effort to cure a balky flatstick.
"For the last few months I've been like the Maytag repair man," Blackmon said. "I just haven't been needed."
Duval finished 152nd on the 2011 PGA Tour money list with $400,654. He got through to the finals by finishing in a tie for second at his second stage qualifier in Murrieta, Calif. This is his fourth trip to Q-school and first since 2009.
"I think lately he's been putting a little too much pressure on [his] putter," Blackmon said. "But that's coming back. He's within a hair of putting it all back together.
"But you can't turn confidence on and off. It's taken a long road for him to come back. But he's had the desire to come back out here and play. Not many guys have the yip driver and make it back on tour."
Unless Duval can rebound this weekend with some good scores, his chances are slim of getting fully exempt on the PGA Tour in 2012. He's 115th going into the last three rounds. But don't look for him to stop fighting.
"I really think David would like for his kids to see him play great golf again," Blackmon said. "He believes in himself and he won't quit."
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.