News & Opinion

A talking head who’s worth hearing

David Duval doesn’t get much ink these days, so his withdrawal Friday from the British Open after firing an opening-round 80 was neither a needle-mover nor a surprise. His status as a past champion (2001) earns Duval an automatic berth in the field, and though he has played in all but two Opens since that landmark triumph, he has made just one cut since 2008.

If you’re among those who wonder why Duval keeps trying, I would point to the man’s competitive soul. The inner drive that carried him to victory at Royal Lytham & St. Annes has not completely dissipated, which is somewhat remarkable in that his playing career has remained largely dormant for 15 years.

As well as I got to know the guy in the early 2000s, I never saw Duval as being in it for the long haul. Even on the back end of his meteoric prime, he conceded to the disillusionment he felt as one of the world’s best golfers. The most poignant example of this surfaced at Royal Lytham, in what should have been his finest hour, when Duval invited me back to his rented house for a brief interview before flying home with the Claret Jug.

The car ride was joyless, his mood almost somber as he packed his belongings. “Is that all there is?” Duval said of winning what would become his only major title. Two years later, his game was in disarray, and though injuries would play a significant role in Duval’s dramatic decline, I felt like I knew better, for better or worse.

He had fallen out of love with the game. Having hinted for years that he wanted more out of life than to excel at striking a little white ball, Duval, perhaps unwittingly, began searching for a higher level of happiness at the expense of his on-course performance.

Now he’s a Golf Channel studio analyst, has been for 3½ years. More than just another tour pro in a necktie, however, Duval delivers a quirky, unfailingly genuine brand of commentary that makes him different from the rest of golf’s talking heads. There are times when his thoughts are preceded by an awkward pause, and like a lot of analysts, Duval can talk himself into circles on occasion.

Those mechanical shortcomings mean little, however, when the source is credible and believable, and Duval earns high marks in both categories.

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David Duval, who withdrew from the British Open after opening with an 80, plays a much more competitive game these days as a TV analyst.

© GOLFFILE/EOIN CLARKE
David Duval, who withdrew from the British Open after opening with an 80, plays a much more competitive game these days as a TV analyst.

Longtime golf writer Jeff Rude: “At the 2016 Masters, I said to Charley Moore [Duval’s longtime representative], ‘You must be the greatest agent of all-time, getting David Duval a TV gig. Who would have thought that was possible back in 1999?’ Charley kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Yeah, I didn’t see that.’ You’ve got all this shtick and screaming on TV nowadays, and it gets old. I’ll turn on my TV to watch David Duval.”

So nobody saw this coming, a second career in the game that made him rich and famous but left him emotionally unsatisfied – a job talking golf for a man who preferred talking about anything else back in his heyday. Duval’s full-blown argument with fellow analyst Brandel Chamblee at the 2016 Ryder Cup was perhaps the best 2½ minutes of television in Golf Channel history (video).

What began with Chamblee blaming Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson for 20 years of U.S. shortcomings quickly ignited when Duval replied, “You can’t assign the [team] losses to certain players.” Chamblee embarked on one of his statistical campaigns. Duval responded by strongly questioning the true value of leadership in a game where execution rules, saying, “Having been out there and done it, there’s a lot more to it than just what these stats say.”

That response didn’t sit well with Chamblee, a journeyman tour pro who won once in 370 career starts. “You think actually being out there and doing it determines whether you can pass judgment on it?” he sniffed. “I wasn’t at the Boston Tea Party, but I can tell you all about it.”

Duval might have lost the debate, but the exchange certified his willingness to mix it up if the cause was right and validated his status as an analyst. There were no plans to use him on the air this week because he was a tournament contestant, but shortly after his withdrawal, I sent him a text and asked if he’d talk to me about his TV career.

I never heard back. Maybe he just didn’t feel like talking to me, or maybe he’d changed his mind and was preparing to be on the air this weekend, after all. That would be cool. I’ll turn on my TV to watch David Duval, too.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com