Form and class are different, but what is the difference? Well, this is the tricky part. There is no concrete definition which draws the distinction between the two, but the general consensus is that form can be fleeting and short-lived whereas class persists year after year.
Generally, sports writers and pundits are hesitant to write high-profile professional athletes off as there is a high likelihood of ending up with a considerable degree of egg on your face, and some have found that out the hard way.
Muhammad Ali’s epitaph had been widely written before shocking the world by knocking out George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle. Andre Agassi was pronounced finished in 1997 as his game and health suffered in the midst of relationship turmoil, drug abuse and spirals of depression, only to bounce back and win a grand-slam and regain the world number one ranking in 1999, and Tiger Woods was described as the laughing stock of golf by more than one publication in recent years and we need no reminders on what Tiger achieved last year.
But these are superstars, bona fide legends, and among the finest sportsmen to ever grace our television sets. They were at the top of their sports for years and shoe-ins for their respective halls of fame. That is class.
Form? Well, a well-timed run of form can turn a journeyman into a winner, a challenger into a contender, and a pretender into a champion. It paid off handsomely – literally – for Billy Horschel and Bill Haas as each crested a four-week breaking wave and ended up cashing in with over $10 million in the FedEx series.
Mike Weir timed it even better, putting a three-week run together that saw him top the leaderboards at Riviera and Augusta National in 2003, equating to one quarter of his entire PGA Tour victory haul.
Impressive though their palmarés are, we’re unlikely to see Weir, Horschel or Haas inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. Great players? Yes. Sheer class? Probably not.
Golf is littered with players whose form has completely deserted them. Take Nick Dougherty for example. It’s hard to believe that Nick is only 37, considering he’s been a regular fixture on the Sky Sports panel for the best part of five years. In 2007, Dougherty led the US Open at Oakmont and played with Tiger Woods in the third round, ultimately finishing tied-seventh. Two years later he missed 31 cuts in 32 events on the European circuit and was effectively finished.
You see, form is fickle like that. Players plummet down the rankings all the time, often never to return. It’s rare that a genuine star ever takes a one-way ticket into the abyss, but it has happened.
The last few years of the 20th Century will rightly be remembered as the period where Tiger was unleashed on the world of professional golf. The “Hello World” commercial, the 12-stroke Masters victory, the fastest ascent to world number one in ranking history, Tiger-mania was at its zenith. Yet, in those early years, David Duval was breathing down Tiger’s neck.
After breaking into the winners’ circle in late ’97, Duval would rack up eleven PGA Tour wins by the decade’s end, including a Players Championship and a Tour Championship, as well as shooting a 13-under final-round 59 – complete with an eagle at the last – en route to a one-stroke victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 1999. It was only the third sub-60 score ever recorded on the PGA Tour.
Duval held the world number one ranking for a total of 15 weeks in a period where he not only had to fight off Tiger, but prime Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson as well, and Woods is on the record as saying that Duval’s was the first name he looked for on the leaderboard.
From 1998 to 2001, Duval played in 15 major championships – he missed the 2000 PGA Championship because of a persistent back injury – and posted 10 top-10s, including a victory at the 2001 Open Championship. To put this in context, Singh, Mickelson and Els played all 16 in the same period, with Mickelson amassing eight top 10s without a win, Els five without a win and Singh five including two wins.
The ironic thing about Duval’s Open Championship win in ’01 is that he didn’t even have his “A” game that week. In his mind, he should’ve won the ’98 Masters – in a feat never achieved before, Mark O’Meara birdied the final two holes to snatch the green jacket from Duval’s grasp – and he was a narrow runner–up to Woods as he completed the final leg of the “Tiger Slam” earlier in ’01.
Winning majors is tough but winning by three strokes when not at your best is something that only the game’s elite can achieve. Not yet 30, with a Claret Jug, a Players Championship, a WGC Title, and 11 other PGA Tour victories, the sky was the limit for the Floridian with the robotic demeanour and killer instinct.
But then came the twist in the tale. Approaching 20 years later, the Open Championship win at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s remains Duval’s last victory on the PGA or European Tour. In the subsequent 18 majors through 2006, he would tee it up on the weekend on just four occasions and plummeted down the world rankings at almost unprecedented speed.
Injuries played their part, sure, but there was a lot more to it than that. On the range and in practice rounds, his game was good, his game was sharp. But inside the ropes it was a different story. The odd freakish result aside (such as his 2009 US Open challenge where he finished solo second in a year where he had 22 starts, 15 missed cuts, and a best finish of 55th apart from his runner-up at Bethpage) what had made Duval a certain hall of famer was gone. Inexplicably, but undeniably, gone.
Duval is 49 this year and has been eligible for World Golf Hall of Fame selection since 2011, but the phone call hasn’t come.
Nothing lasts forever, and for David Duval, it only lasted four years.
Form is temporary, sometimes class is too.