Golf is a fickle game. One day everything is clicking and falling into place, and the next day it is gone. Anyone who has ever picked up a club can attest to that feeling. This fleeting feeling is not relegated to amateurs—it can afflict the best players in the world.
There are major champions roaming the mini-tours who are searching for that answer. Some will find it and return to prominence, but others will search for a lifetime for that magic formula that can appear out of nowhere and vanish in flash.
These three golfers are examples of the fleeting nature of success in golf.
There is no better example of the fickle nature of the game of golf than the career of David Duval. Once upon a time, David Duval was a can’t-miss prospect. He was a four-time All-American at Georgia Tech and had a phenomenal early pro career.
He was the No. 1 player in the world in 1999, and there seemed to be a budding rivalry between himself and Tiger Woods that would carry golf fans for the foreseeable future.
Duval won 11 tournaments in an 18-month span between October 1997 and April 1999. These wins also came at some of the most prestigious stops on tour. Duval was victorious at the Players, the Tour Championship and won a World Golf Championship at Firestone among other victories.
These accomplishments were impressive, but the label of the best player to have never won a major followed him everywhere he went.
The monkey was finally off his back when he won the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s. Experts thought this would open up the floodgates for Duval and many majors would follow, but that was not the case. This was the last victory on tour for Duval.
After this win, Duval’s game declined. He suffered from injuries to his back, ribs and wrist and had a bout with vertigo.
Duval has been absent from the golf scene for most of the last decade, but has managed to pop up on the radar occasionally.
He was in contention through two rounds at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot and, although his game struggled a bit on the weekend, he still managed a very respectable tie for a 16th-place finish.
The most notable performance of the last 10 years for Duval came at the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. Duval stayed in contention all week and managed a final-round charge that saw him tied for the lead on the par-3 17th hole.
Duval’s tee shot missed the green, but he hit a solid chip shot to about five feet. His par bid horseshoed out of the cup in what was one of the most painful lip-outs in major championship history.
Duval bogeyed the hole and eventually finished in a tie for second place.
To date, Duval is still trying to make it on the PGA Tour. He did some work with ESPN at last year’s Open Championship, but has not given further indication of pursuing a television career.
Duval had to go through Q-School last fall and was unable to keep his tour card. He now has a limited status on tour as past champion. He played last week at Pebble Beach, but missed the cut.
For now, he seems to be still concentrating on his game and trying to acquire that fleeting feeling that made him the best player in the world.
After years of success on the Japanese tour, Todd Hamilton burst on to the American golfing scene in 2004.
He won the Honda Classic that year in a duel with Davis Love III, but his real moment of glory came that summer at the Open Championship.
He played well through the first few rounds and his third-round 67 gave him a one-shot lead heading into Sunday. Although he was in the lead, it was far from secure. Hamilton had the likes of Els, Mickelson, Woods and Goosen chasing him.
As the final round went on, the tournament became a three-man race between Hamilton, Els and Mickelson. A missed short putt on the 14th hole cost Mickelson as he finished at nine-under, one stroke out of a Hamilton-Els playoff.
The playoff matched a future hall of famer against a relative unknown journeyman—it was a true David versus Goliath.
Hamilton and Els parred the first two holes of the playoff and, when Els bogeyed the par-3 17th hole, it left Hamilton with a one-stroke lead going to the final hole of the playoff.
Hamilton sunk a five-foot par putt on the last hole to win the tournament and his life changed forever.
He finished 2004 as No. 16 in the world and was named the PGA Tour rookie of the year.
However, since 2004, it has been a struggle for Hamilton. He has missed 46 total cuts since 2009, and his best finish during that stretch was a tie for fourth at the 2009 Heritage.
Hamilton does not have his card and is currently playing as a past winner on tour. His one and only start in 2013 came last week at Pebble Beach and it resulted in a missed cut.
Shaun Micheel hit one of the most memorable shots in major championship history.
At the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill, Micheel and Chad Campbell were battling down the stretch during the final round. Micheel found himself up one stroke on the 18th fairway.
He then hit a seven iron to within inches of the hole to seal the tournament. Up to that point of his career, he was just a journeyman who had gone back and forth between the PGA Tour and the mini-tours. He entered the 2003 PGA Championship No. 169 in the world.
He ended the 2003 season No. 32 on the money list, but that was his best season to date. He suffered from issues of fatigue and a low testosterone condition in 2005, and that contributed to his poor play.
One of Micheel’s few bright spots since his 2003 victory was his second-place finish at the 2006 PGA Championship. Although it was a distant second behind Tiger Woods, many people thought that could be a sign of resurgence in Micheel’s game.
He backed up that finish with a tie for seventh place a few weeks later at the Deutsche Bank Championship, but has not returned to form since.
Micheel’s best finish since 2007 was a fourth place at the 2010 Shell Houston Open. He missed six cuts in 12 tournaments last year and failed to regain his tour card.
Micheel does not have full status on tour and will have to rely on special exemptions and being in the alternate pool throughout the season.
Golf is unique in that a player can catch lightning in a bottle for a four-day stretch and be immortalized in the sport forever. As with the case of Micheel and Hamilton, however, lightning rarely strikes twice.
Nobody can seem to find an answer to the Duval conundrum. How does someone so dominant lose his game so quickly? Injuries have something to do with it, but his fall from grace is a testament to the game of golf.
In no other sport can the consensus best player fall so far. There is such a fine line between success in failure in golf that, unless you are fully invested, you can slip up.
Between the ropes, a golfer is on his own. Yes, he has a caddy, but he hits the shots and cannot rely on teammates to pick up the slack. Golf is as much mental as it is physical, and once doubt enters a player’s mind and the mental demons take hold, there is no coming back from that.