LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- Somewhere along the path toward his first major championship, David Duval realized it was only a game.
Tied for the lead after 54 holes in the British Open, he spent the evening taking money from his house guests in a game of gin. The night before, after a 40 on the back nine left him thrilled just to make the cut, he had a chipping contest in the backyard of his rented house.
"He was really at peace with himself all week," said Buck Levy, a retired doctor from Sun Valley, Idaho, who met Duval on the slopes a few years ago.
The wraparound shades and a stoic face suggest Duval is all business. He certainly looked that way Sunday, when he put together a 4-under 67 to pull away from the pack for a three-stroke victory at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
The experience of seven previous opportunities in the majors taught Duval that good golf doesn't always breed good results. He twice closed with a 67 at the Masters, only to watch someone else slip on a green jacket.
"You get four chances each year, and you have to have a lot of things go right those weeks to even get into a position to win the golf tournament," he said. "Then you have to do it. There's no way around it."
Duval had been there before.
He was a runner-up three times during his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 1995, and endured four more second-place finishes over the next two years as people began to wonder if he knew how to win.
In the early fall of 1997, Duval took a month off to fish and surf around his home in Jacksonville, Fla., then won his next three tournaments.
That was the start of a blistering stretch in which he won 11 times in 34 tournaments, shot the only final-round 59 in PGA Tour history and replaced Tiger Woods at No. 1 in the world ranking.
The majors were another matter.
In one of those Masters, Mark O'Meara birdied three of the last four holes to win by a stroke. Three months ago, Duval missed birdie putts of 12 and 5 feet on the final two holes, and Woods won at Augusta by two shots to made it a clean sweep of the majors.
"He never got too frustrated about not winning a major," said Duval's fiancee, Julie MacArthur.
He never quit trying, either. Duval worked himself into fighting shape for the U.S. Open this year, got into the hunt once again and then faded quickly on the weekend.
Four chances every year - and Duval watched two of them slip away.
So, how did he get ready for Royal Lytham?
A year ago, he joined Woods and O'Meara on their annual voyage to Ireland to fish and play links golf in the wind. This time, he retreated to Sun Valley for fishing, running, and mountain biking.
"They play too much golf," he joked.
Duval didn't hit a ball until he arrived at Lytham last week. Even amid the possibility of a wild shootout in the final round Sunday, he felt an eerie calm.
"As much as anything, I realized it's still a silly old game," he said. "I was just trying to hit it solid and move it forward, go hit it again and make some putts. It sounds stupid, but it's funny how much is made about it because we are playing a game.
"I've made it a lot bigger than it is, too," he said. "Maybe that's some of the reason I felt so good. Maybe I realized it's just a game."
No one played it better over the weekend.
Duval made only one bogey in each of his final two rounds, a 65 that shot him from a tie for 35th into a four-way tie for the lead, followed by a 67 that enabled him to build a two-stroke lead going to the back nine.
From there, no one had a chance.
Duval's only mistake was a 6-iron into the bunker on No. 12 that led to his lone bogey. He escaped with par despite driving into rough on No. 14. In deep rough from 210 yards away on the next hole, he muscled a 6-iron within 15 feet for another par.
The final three holes were a ceremonial stroll. He never paid attention to the leaderboards, not even realizing the size of the lead when he belted a driver 299 yards down the 18th fairway.
He left Sunday night for Canada to take part in a Skins game with Mike Weir, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh. After that, he teams with Karrie Webb in a mixed-team TV exhibition against Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam, followed by the International in Colorado.
There, Duval will be introduced on the first tee as the British Open champion.
Where will it lead?
"I wasn't thinking one, I was thinking several," Duval said. "I would imagine what it would do is intensify my desire to do it again."
His name is beneath Woods' on the claret jug, which Duval found appropriate.
While he was the only player other than Woods to be No. 1 in the world over the past three years, Duval understands that a tie for 25th by Woods at Royal Lytham makes him no less great.
"You can argue if he's the best player ever or the best player of his generation," he said of Woods. "Time will tell. But you know, I beat them all this week, and I feel really good."
Then he paused, the silver jug not far from his reach, and added: "It feels wonderful."