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A Major Love Affair

Davis Love III turns his passion toward capturing one of golf's Grand Slam tournaments.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Claudia Schiffer, Jul/Aug 97

On any soft, steamy late afternoon the miniature menaces of Sea Island, Georgia, come searching for sustenance. The gnats and the no-see-ums, infinitesimal bloodsucking annoyances, look for the bare necks, arms and legs of walkers on the beach, fishermen on the docks and golfers on the range.

Between practice swings Davis Love III, a teenager in the late '70s and early '80s, would be waving the little buggers away or crushing them under the slap of his palm. His brother Mark (now his caddie) would be nearby, hitting shots and swatting. His father, Davis Love II, would be watching his sons with the fine-tuned eye of a golf professional, looking for the tiny imprecisions of the swing and trying to fix them. He had two talented sons, though Davis had the added benefit of patience. He would hit and swat all evening if it meant getting a shot right.

When the bug swarm got to be too much, when there was too much swatting and not enough swinging, Davis Love II would go into the golf shop at the Sea Island Golf Club and extract an old stogie from somewhere, usually a dry old thing that wasn't fit for man or beast. And that was the object. Those bloodsucking, swarming, biting little beasts couldn't stand the smoke of the old stogie. Davis Love II would light it up, taking as few puffs as possible to get it going, then lay it on the ground near his son, the smoke rising to chase away the bugs so that there was more swinging than swatting.

That was the way that Davis Love III was introduced to cigars. An old stogie, lying on the turf of the range or maybe across the shaft of a club. Cigars were bug chasers back then, back when Davis Love III began chasing his dream.

He's still chasing his dream today, his dream of winning one of the major golf tournaments. The Masters--now wouldn't that be a dream. The U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship. The four tournaments make up the modern Grand Slam of golf, and no one has ever won all four in one year. Jack Nicklaus has been chasing that dream for four decades and has won 18 majors. Ben Hogan won nine, including three in 1953, when only the PGA Championship stood between him and immortality. Tom Watson captured eight Slam tournaments, Arnold Palmer seven, Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino six each. Going into June's U.S. Open, Davis Love had yet to win one, though in the past two years he's come closer and closer to having his name etched beside the legends of the game, closer and closer to lighting a victory cigar in tribute to both his own accomplishment and to the everlasting memory of his father.

The mantle, or is it the yoke, of the best golfer never to win a major tournament has now fallen across the shoulders of Davis Love. It's a burden he will carry, and willingly, until that time when talent and luck combine to produce for him a Grand Slam victory. When Corey Pavin won the U.S. Open in 1995, the mantle was lifted from his shoulders. When Tom Lehman won the British Open in 1996, the mantle was lifted from his shoulders. Through the years there has always been a player of promise, a player capable of winning millions of dollars and any given tournament on the PGA Tour, who hasn't been able to put it together to win a major. Entering the 1997 season, that player was Davis Love III.

Last summer, at steamy and storm-ravaged Oakland Hills Country Club in suburban Detroit, Davis Love came to the 17th hole in contention for the U.S. Open title. He was two strokes back, playing ahead of the group with leader Tom Lehman and contender Steve Jones. On the 17th, a long par 3, the hiss of a compressed air container at a nearby concession stand put a hitch in his swing that led to a bogey. Then came the fateful par-4 18th, where his fine approach shot left him 20 feet above the hole with a chance for a birdie. Shockingly, he left the first putt three feet short. And just as shockingly, he missed the three-footer and made bogey. As fate would have it--and doesn't fate always have its way with golf--Love could have won the tournament by making par and birdie on the last two holes, and could have made it into a playoff by simply two-putting the 18th for par.

Love finished in a tie for second with Lehman, with Jones the unlikely victor. Of all Love's near misses in all the tournaments he's played in, nothing hurt more than that one. And nothing has spurred him on more to winning a major than that fateful afternoon at Oakland Hills. "It's a motivating factor for me now," he says as he contemplates a gift cigar in the locker-room lobby of the La Costa Resort in Southern California. "I don't worry about it, but it's definitely in my head. Every time I think about not wanting to hit practice balls or don't want to play, or don't want to practice my putting, that motivates me to keep going because I know I need more of an edge to finish tournaments off. I could win five U.S. Opens and that one will still bother me."

With 10 PGA Tour victories and nearly $7 million in career purse earnings, not to mention millions in endorsement and exhibition money, Davis Love III is one of the most respected players in golf. He's 33 now, though his baby-face looks belie his age. He was on a victorious Ryder Cup team in 1993 and a losing one in 1995. Paired with Fred Couples, Love won four consecu-tive World Cup titles. Among his tour victories is the 1992 Players Championship, the near major that has the strongest field of any event in golf. It's not a major, though, and nothing will fill the void in his career if he can't win one of the crown jewels.

That isn't to say that Davis Love doesn't have a fine life. He would be the first to tell you that life is very good, thank you. There is his lovely wife, Robin, and their two children, nine-year-old Alexia and three-year-old Davis IV. There is the lovely home on Sea Island and a new one that is being built five miles away. There's hunting and fishing to be done on Sea Island, a Harley motorcycle to ride, a pickup to ramble around in. There are classic cars to tinker with: a show-perfect 1957 Chevy Bel-Air convertible, a 1958 Chevy Impala, a 1964 Ford Galaxy. There is a share in a private jet that allows him to travel around the country in both style and his coveted privacy.

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