Duval’s win at TPC Sawgrass: an ‘extreme test of patience’
March 10, 2019
By Sean Martin , PGATOUR.COM
David Duval's precise tee shot on No. 17 at THE PLAYERS 1999
The numbers tell the story of the 1999 PLAYERS Championship.
The winning score was the highest ever recorded at TPC Sawgrass. It was shot by a man who’d won 30 percent of his starts over the previous 17 months. And he supplanted Tiger Woods atop the world ranking when when he walked off the 18th green.
The dominant stretch that defined David Duval’s career culminated when he conquered THE PLAYERS Stadium Course. His combination of distance and accuracy made him nearly unbeatable when he was at his best.
So it’s fitting that his PLAYERS victory came on the most demanding week in TPC Sawgrass’ history.
And now, with THE PLAYERS returning to March, that week provides a perfect illustration of the type of tournament that the earlier date can produce. It’s impossible to control the weather, but the lower temperatures and humidity increase the chances of getting the course in championship condition.
“I always thought the course played better in March,” Duval said recently. “You can get it more consistently firm and fast. You can grow the kind of thicker, longer overseeded rye rough.”
That’s exactly what players faced in 1999, which is one reason Duval’s victory was so meaningful to him.
“It was an extreme test of patience,” he said. “I have a lot of pride in how I played and held it together.”
High winds buffeted the course on the weekend, increasing the challenge. Only two players, Duval and Scott Gump, finished under par. Duval’s total of 3-under 285 (69-69-74-73) was enough for a two-shot victory.
That week’s 74.7 scoring average also is the highest in the course’s history. Only Carnoustie -- where a controversial setup produced a winning score of 6 over par in The Open Championship -- played more difficult in 1999.
Duval’s final-round 73 was the highest final-round score by a PLAYERS champion on the Stadium Course. It was good enough to earn him his 10th win in his last 33 starts. (He also was victorious the following week, but only won twice more on TOUR. His final win came at the 2001 Open Championship.)
Players knew early in the week that TPC Sawgrass was going to provide a thorough test. Defending champion Justin Leonard said he had trouble finding balls he dropped in the rough during practice rounds.
“The rough will be a problem if you go in it this week,” said Ernie Els, “especially with the greens being this firm.”
Duval’s response when asked about the course conditions?
“I have always found out the rough isn’t so bad in the middle of the fairways,” he said. His confidence was well-deserved.
He won his first start of the season, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, by nine shots. Then he fired a final-round 59 to win his next start, the Desert Classic.
With Woods just beginning to emerge from dramatic swing changes, Duval was considered by many to be the best player in the world, even if it didn’t become official until after THE PLAYERS.
What does it feel like to go on such a run?
“It becomes pretty easy,” he said in a recent interview with PGATOUR.COM. “There’s a hyper-focus. You see your targets as clear as you ever will and you know precisely what it is you’re trying to do. There’s a lot of emptiness in your mind, if you will. Some clarity. It all kind of ties together.”
When Duval arrived at TPC Sawgrass, he was ranked in the top 10 in driving distance, driving accuracy and greens in regulation.
And, as good as he was at going low – he was 52 under par in his first two starts of the year – he also appreciated the toughest conditions.
“It boils down to the essence of the game. What did you shoot?” he said in a recent interview with PGATOUR.COM. “That’s the thing I like about those tests. Everybody makes jokes that there’s no pictures on the scorecard. Well, that’s the truth. This game is about what you shoot. Those setups like that, you can’t worry about how you’re hitting it. You can’t worry about anything other than making a score.”
Duval started the tournament with consecutive 69s. He was in second place at the halfway mark, one shot behind Joe Ozaki.
On Saturday, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees, into the mid-60s, and wind gusts reached 20 mph. Leaves blowing across the green would sometimes strike golf balls and send them offline.
“You just have to hit great golf shots,” said Payne Stewart. “If you don’t, you’re extremely penalized.”
Duval’s 74 beat Ozaki by seven shots. Ozaki was one of 14 players to shoot in the 80s that Saturday. The 76.2 scoring average was the second-toughest single day in TPC Sawgrass’ history.
Over the weekend, there were more scores in the 80s (19) than under par (12). Bob Friend had both, shooting 87-70. Fred Couples was the only player to break 70 on the weekend.
Duval took a one-shot lead into the final round. He had trouble closing out tournaments earlier in his career, but those days were behind him. He’d converted five consecutive 54-hole leads into victory.
“My memories from Sunday are about trying to survive,” he said recently.
He had to make a 15-foot putt for bogey on the par-3 eighth and was in trouble again on the par-5 ninth after hitting his second shot into a bunker. Squeezing his 100-yard shot into a small gap in the trees was his best option.
“It may have been 3 feet, 4 feet wide,” he said. “It wasn’t very big. But I didn’t know what else to do at that point. I thought, ‘Well, let’s see if we can pull this off. If you can, you have a chance to maybe win this golf tournament. If not, you’re probably going to be out of it.’”
Duval did well to hit it in the greenside bunker. He holed the next shot for an improbable birdie.
He was just one shot ahead when he reached the 17th tee, though. His long history with THE PLAYERS paid off there. Duval, who grew up in Jacksonville, had been coming to the tournament approximately 20 years. His father, Bob, used to work in the scoring tent, and David served as a marker one year. (Bob actually won on PGA TOUR Champions the same day his son was winning THE PLAYERS.)
Gump, playing in the second-to-last group, had watched his tee shot land on the Island Green, but trickle into the water. Duval knew there was only a small area where he could land his ball to avoid a similar fate.
“The only way to play that hole was to land it just over the bunker. If you hit it up top, it would bounce right over and go into the water. If you hit it down below, it would stay there and you’re going to three-putt,” he said. “It was the only spot you could hit the ball. I was proud to pull that off."
“I remember watching Nick Price when he won in 1993. When he got to 17, he got his yardage, pulled his club and hit his shot. He was decisive. If anything, speed up your routine and be decisive.”
He hit his pitching wedge to the perfect spot. The 7-foot birdie putt gave him a two-shot lead as he walked to the 18th tee. He got up-and-down from behind the green to complete the victory.
And now he hopes players will face a similar test on THE PLAYERS’ return to March.
“It should be an extreme test,” he said. “And that’s precisely what it was.”