Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Kicking into High Gear Defending Champ Duval Confident He's Close to His Winning Level of Last Season

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Kicking into High Gear Defending Champ Duval Confident He's Close to His Winning Level of Last Season

Article excerpt

PONTE VEDRA BEACH -- A year ago this week, David Duval achieved the greatest triumph of his professional career to date.

The rest of the year, on and off the course, was much more difficult. But the Jacksonville native enters this week's Players Championship fit and ready to defend his 1999 title, and eager to put the problems of the latter part of the year even further behind him.

Duval even said, with confidence, that he is close to the level of play that enabled him to win four tournaments during the first three months of the year.

"I believe I am right there," he said yesterday, after getting in some short game practice at the Tournament Players Club Stadium Course. "I don't know how you quantify it, but I think I am right there . . . just a little bit of kick here and a little there, and that last one putt falling for me that really turns it around for the week."

Duval is currently sixth on the money list, first in greens in regulation and second in total driving, so he's negotiating the tee-to-green path well. He finished in a tie for fourth at the Doral-Ryder Open and third in the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship in his last two starts and the third and fourth top-five finishes in the year for him.

All that's required is the steadying of a balky putting stroke (he's 149th in total putts per round), and Duval believes he'll turn one of those top-fives into another victory stroll down some 18th fairway. If not here, then perhaps next week at the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta, where he will defend another 1999 title -- or at The Masters a week after that.

"Am I looking ahead? [to The Masters]," Duval said. "Certainly I am, to an extent. But all that will change, come [tomorrow, in The Players first round]. Once that starts, it's down to business."

Duval hasn't won since he put together his Players and BellSouth titles back-to-back last year, and naturally admits to disappointment that he didn't follow up his four early victories with a triumph in one of the four major championships last year. …

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