Unable to play since the British Open, flat on his back until two weeks ago, Duval was beginning to wonder whether his back would heal in time for him to salvage a disappointing season, or when he could return at all.
He no longer has to answer any more questions about his back - or his game.
With birdies on three of the last four holes, Duval returned in style Sunday by winning the Buick Challenge and showing that he might be ready to take a run at Tiger Woods.
"My mind was fresh coming in here," said Duval, who closed with a 7-under 65 for a two-stroke victory over Jeff Maggert and Nick Price. "I didn't know what to expect from my golf swing. I thought I could win. I can't tell you I expected to play as well as I did."
No one could have expected this finish.
Duval, who never looked at the scoreboard during the final round at Callaway Gardens, appeared doomed when he had to make a 5-footer for bogey on the 14th and fell three strokes behind.
But Maggert, trying to become the first wire-to-wire winner of this tournament in 23 years, faltered with bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes. Price also bogeyed the 17th with a bad lie in the rough just short of the green.
Duval hit a wedge into 2 feet for birdie on the 17th, then hit another wedge that covered the flag on the 18th and spun back to 4 feet for a victory he didn't know was his until after he signed his card.
He finished at 269 and earned $414,000, winning for the first time in 29 events.
"Today was the best I've felt in a long, long time," Duval said. "I'm finally playing without injury."
That might not be enough to catch Woods, who has won 15 times, including four majors, since Duval's last victory in the BellSouth Classic in March of last year. But Duval seems up for the challenge.
"Eighteen months ago, everyone was asking what was wrong with Tiger," he said. "Memories are short out here, as they are in every sport. We all know Tiger Woods is the best player in the game, and we all have to play better golf."
Maggert lost the lead for the first since Thursday, a span of 51 holes, then regained it with birdies on three of the first four holes on the back nine for a two-stroke margin.
Just when it looked like the final few holes would come down to Maggert and Price, both watched helplessly as Duval rolled in his 16th birdie of the weekend Price with hands on his hips, Maggert with arms folded as he stared at the ground.
"I just made a few too many bogeys,"Maggert, who finished with a 70 on the Mountain View course. He is 1-7 when having at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
Price caught a nasty lie in the first cut of rough on the 17th, not sure whether it would come out 6 feet long or 6 feet short. His chip came up short, and he failed to save par. He had a 68.
For Duval, the victory helps salvage a strange year.
He went on a vigorous fitness routine in the offseason but saw one victory after another slip away early in the year, either because of his putting or because of a bad shot at the worst time like his 6-iron into Rae's Creek at the Masters.
Right when his game was rounding into form, he injured his back after the U.S. Open. Still, he got into the final group at the British Open with Woods, although six strokes behind. He gave him a brief scare, but Woods went onto more history and Duval went on disabled list.
Flat on his back for six weeks, Duval missed the PGA Championship and the World Golf Championship event at Firestone.
"This is a spectacular week for me," Duval said. "Everything that happened this year on the golf course, then to follow up that disappointment with the injury, then to come back and do this ... it's an absolute dream."
He now goes to the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill, a tournament he has won twice in the last three years. Duval will finish the season playing with Woods in the World Cup in Argentina.
"I feel a lot better about him asking me to play," he said.
Price, who now has gone 38 tournaments since winning the St. Jude Classic in 1998, caught a couple of bad breaks. He hit an 8-iron from 158 yards, uphill and into the breeze, on No. 9 that flew out of the first cut of rough.
"It was like a rocket," Price said, incredible at how far it went. The ball went over the green, onto a cart path, past the Buick sedan on display and under an oak tree next to the clubhouse kitchen.
He made bogey there, then hit his drive into rough on the par-5 11th and caught a branch trying to play into the fairway, taking a bogey. Still, he was tied for the lead until his final bogey removed all hope.
Duval made a conscious effort not to look at the scoreboard, preferring to play his own game and see where it got him. He wound up in a place he hasn't been in a long time, anxious now to see where this will take him.
©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed