Originally created 03/02/00

Duval tries to pick up the pace at new Doral



MIAMI -- David Duval held his fingers a quarter-inch apart, measuring the difference between how well he is playing compared to a year ago.

"Really close," he said Wednesday.

What would help pinch those fingers together is a victory, which is one reason he decided to skip the slopes of Sun Valley and return to Florida for the first time in 10 weeks as a last-minute entry in the Doral-Ryder Open.

When Duval says he is close, he is not kidding.

There has not been a 59 or two victories, as was the case last year. But there has been opportunity, the first ingredient in winning.

He has finished third on two occasions -- four strokes out of the playoff in the Mercedes Championship in January, and a 4 and 2 loss to Darren Clarke in the semifinals of the Match Play Championship last week. He rebounded for a 5 and 4 thrashing of Davis Love III.

He played in the final group in the Bob Hope Classic, couldn't hit the hole on putts inside 10 feet and tied for fifth. He was just three strokes out of the lead in Los Angeles going into the final round and putted nicely -- except the birdie tries came from long range.

"I have played pretty well, and didn't get anything out of it on the green," Duval said. "Then the last week, I started to hole a few putts. It hasn't been far off all year, just a little bit. I think I'm about ready."

Better news for the rest of the field: The Blue Monster is ready, too.

The course originally designed by Dick Wilson went through a facelift in 1996 when Doral asked Raymond Floyd to make it tougher. Floyd all but imported the Gobi Desert, adding more bunkers and turning others into sand pits.

The changes were so severe that several players stopped coming. Now, under the supervision of Doral teaching pro Jim McLean, 70 bunkers have either been removed or altered to make the resort course more playable.

"The big thing is, you can see the fairways now," Duval said. "You can see where to hit the ball. It doesn't look like you're just hitting at white stuff everywhere."

The Florida swing begins Thursday, the traditional first step on the road to Augusta National. Doral still isn't as prestigious in past years because the international players it once attracted have come over for the Match Play Championship in San Diego.

But the course improvements have helped.

Along with Duval, six of the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list will start play over the 7,125-yard Blue Monster on Thursday. Phil Mickelson is back after a two-year absence, and Greg Norman is making his American debut in a stroke-play event.

The defending champion is Steve Elkington. He and Norman combined to win five tournaments at Doral in the 1990s.

"This golf course is probably in the best condition I have ever seen it," Norman said.

Norman would like to get his game in similar shape.

Unlike Duval, Norman hasn't been even close to his best this year. He attributes much of that to many distractions in Australia, where he is either working on some of his varied business interests or seeing old friends.

"Right now, I had a lot of opportunity to spend plenty of time on the golf course, focusing on what I need," he said.

Always one of the hardest workers in the game, Norman says he no longer spends 10 hours a day in practice. No, he's shaved that down to a mere five or six hours, during which he hits about 600 balls, besides the chipping and putting.

"I pretty much went back to my old routine, just to get into the flow of it again," he said.

Duval would like to get his putting in the same flow it was last year. He was 10th on the PGA Tour in putting, compared to 90th through five stroke-play tournaments this year.

This week should be a good indication where he stands. Because of the substantial rain on the West Coast, the greens at Pebble Beach, Riviera and La Costa were soft, spongy and filled with footprints.

"The ball is rolling a little bit on the fairways, greens are a little smoother," he said. "What a great day."

The greater relief will be Sunday, if he can finally cash a first-place check.