SOUTHPORT, England – On the face of it, David Duval's assertion that he is once more "seeking greatness" should be laughable.
The former world number one's fall from grace following his peak in the early part of this decade was spectacular and embarrassing, as his swing fell apart and the hardened veneer that had marked him as one of golf's toughest competitors cracked and fell away.
The scale of Duval's collapse almost defied belief. How could a man who had shot a 59 in the final round to win the 1999 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, knocked Tiger Woods off the top of the rankings and looked set to add more majors to his collection of one, completely lose his form?
How could he slip to 515th in the world, shoot an 82 at the scene of his 59, miss cut after cut after cut, and even take part in a Nike commercial making fun of his own demise?
And once he had, how could he find the motivation to carry on regardless, despite playing at a level lower than the journeymen pros he once left trailing in his slipstream?
Yet here he was in the Royal Birkdale media zone Friday evening, tied for fourth in the British Open at 2 over after a lovely round of 69, and talking like a winner.
"I know what greatness is all about," Duval said. "This return is not about settling for mediocrity. I am taking the long, hard road back to greatness."
Back in 2001, when the Open championship at Royal Lytham and St Annes provided him with his only major title, greatness was written all over Duval.
Engaged in a battle with Woods for the top spot in the world and regularly contending at all the big events, he was one of the dominant forces in the game.
Behind the scenes though, all was not well. The demons, not yet visible to the untrained eye, had already started to creep into his swing and would manifest destructively over the following years.
"By 2001 I was already on the way to swinging poorly," he said. "I started deteriorating in 1999. When I am rebuilding my swing now, I look back farther than that, back to 1992 and even before."
Even at the moment of his greatest triumph, says Duval, there was something missing. Now an utterly devoted family man, in the early part of the decade the game of golf was his chief focus, to the point of obsession.
"I had friends and family but I was alone," Duval said. "To have your own family like I do now is something totally different. I have told my wife that she gets the first trophy and the kids get the second."
That Duval is even talking about silverware is remarkable in itself. This is a man who has so far taken home $13,020 in prize money in 2008, having made one cut in 12 tournaments and played 27 rounds at 95-over par coming into the event.
Yet despite his struggles – and what struggles they were – he still feels that his past success gives him an edge over his weekend rivals.
It may just be that if this week is the start of a revival and that Duval has turned the corner, he is driven forward more by the memory of the time he spent, by professional standards, as a truly awful golfer than he is by thoughts of his golden years.
While family life is now his priority, he would love nothing more than for his loved ones to see him scale similar heights to those he managed at Lytham, and nearly at Augusta, where he challenged on the final day of four straight Masters.
Looking at Duval's swing, now back in rhythm, it is easy to believe the good times may return. Listening to him, and his earnest belief that he can once again reach the pinnacle of the sport, makes you root for him to achieve it.
But a glance at the statistics books brings home the reality that there is also a serious chance that the first two days of the Open were a blip, and that Duval can just as easily return to the turgid form he has shown all year.
Either way, it will probably be one or the other. Because this is David Duval, and there is no middle ground. Brilliant or awful.
Some will believe in him, many will not. But Duval will never lose the faith. If the depths to which his career plummeted were not enough to erase his conviction, then nothing is.
- David Duval