A friend called a few weeks ago, asking if I wanted to go see the kickoff fight of Mike Tyson's exhibition tour in Youngstown, Ohio. No thanks, I said. No need to catch Tyson's act in person; I'd already caught David Duval's.
A ridiculous linkage, you say? Of course you do. David Duval is a golf knight nobly fighting to regain the form he inexplicably lost through no fault of his own. Mike Tyson is a common thug who made millions off his powerful fists and still managed to blow it in a torrent of ear biting, back-alley fighting and crazy spending.
That's the typical sports-fan take, anyway.
Look a little closer and you might be surprised at the similarity between golf's doted-on battler and boxing's ridiculed punk.
Both Duval and Tyson are hanging on long after becoming competitively irrelevant, wringing a few more paychecks out of the public's overblown memory of them in their primes.
There's one major difference. Tyson acknowledges that's exactly what he's doing. He admits he'd consider fighting a woman for money. He probably wouldn't rule out a horse. Tyson endlessly analyzes himself in public, baring his soul and whatever weird state it's in whether he's talking to a national TV pundit or a reporter from some podunk paper.
Duval makes like some tortured artist, playing for the love of the game even though the really big paydays are a thing of the past. He'd rather be home with his wonderful wife and kids, but something drives him to keep pushing through an aching back. Not that he wants to talk about it. He sounds like every character Kevin Costner's ever played in a movie.
Give me a break. Can we send this soap-opera king straight from the scorer's tent to the set of Laguna Beach?
Golf Digest ran so many fawning Duval pieces you'd think he'd won a Purple Heart and saved three babies from being adopted by Madonna. One Q&A included photo evidence of Duval smiling, a shot of him feeding his baby and a heartwarming anecdote about his new stepkids text-messaging each other updates on his play.
This for a golfer who's missed more cuts than he's made (13 in 24 events), hasn't had a top-10 finish and ranks 172nd on the money list (with a mere $318,276). And people feel guilty about still paying attention to Tyson?
Both these guys are washed-up ghosts of sports greatness past. Yet while people boo Tyson with fury when his exhibition fight turns out to be exactly that, they cheer Duval with fervor. They write him heartwarming notes of encouragement even as he advances sideways down the fairway - and, usually, determinedly avoids acknowledging these same fans.
Of course, it's easy to convince yourself David Duval is worth pulling for. He's the Steve Blass of golf, the great competitor inexplicably plunged from No. 1 to No. 172.
That's the story, anyway. And it should be a good one. There is nothing more fascinating in sports than a champion felled by secrets in his own mind that he cannot hope to understand, a champion who continues to struggle on.
I was once right there in lockstep with this thinking. I called Duval "the most compelling story" in golf on this very Web site.
Then I caught Duval playing in person. I started asked around, working on an article. And before long it became apparent that there's not much substance there. Not in the person, or in all the theories about his downturn.
I followed Duval at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, early in the season. The buzz was just starting to build about glimpses of a return to form. He'd played well the week before, hit the ball decently in Palm Springs.
And the guy could not have seemed more put out if he was stuck in the backseat of a taxi with a mule in his lap in Lincoln Tunnel traffic. He sometimes seemed to be glaring at his galleries through his trademark wraparound shades.
Duval led three reporters who wanted to talk to him on a race-walk to the parking lot, only answering questions he could easily dodge. As to illuminating the circumstances of his slide, "I don't know what you want me to say" turned out to be his go-to line.
Maybe that's because Duval knows it's all a bunch of bunk. He frankly looks like he's put on weight. Could he have just gotten fat off success, both literally and figuratively? It's as valid a theory as any of the psychological mumbo jumbo. Maybe David Duval, the Tour's swinging sympathy card, has simply lost his desire and dedication.
The more you talk to Duval and others about it, the more you hear the nonsense, the more he looks like Benoit Benjamin with a Nike driver.
The media reticence certainly comes off as an act. Duval's willingness to talk seems to rise in proportion to his interlocutor's circulation or ratings. He blew off the local stations in Palm Springs, but not the Golf Channel.
The real test of Duval's love for the game will come when his huge endorsement contracts run out. He's still had millions of reasons to play the last few years.
In the meantime, it's high time to drop the sympathy for David Duval. Save it for someone who deserves it. Like Terrell Owens.
November 6, 2006
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