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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

And there are his cigars. What started as a curiosity more than five years ago has become a passion. He has a separate room in his house for cigar smoking, a glassed-in porch with a separate air conditioning system to keep the smoke away from the children. In the new house that room will be even bigger, and there will be a bigger cellar for his wines. Life is good when, at the end of a day of practice or a day of hunting, he sits down to a maduro or his beloved La Gloria Cubanas along with a glass of red wine.

One of Love's best friends on the tour, Brad Faxon, takes credit for introducing Love to the delights of cigars and showing him that they aren't merely for chasing away the bugs. While Faxon and Love were playing in the Johnnie Walker World Championship of Golf in 1992, they and their families were staying at Tryall, the exclusive Jamaican resort. In the villa they shared was a box of what apparently were fairly old cigars. They smoked them and discovered that they were little better than bug chasers. Faxon, who had been a cigar smoker for a short while, convinced Love that they should find better cigars, some Macanudos or Partagas. They did, and Love found how much pleasure there was in a good smoke.

"When he likes something, he becomes an authority on it," says Faxon. "He doesn't do anything half-assed. He reads about it. Studies it. He remembers everything. Davis took to cigars just like he took to wine. We bought cigars at the duty-free shop at the Jamaica airport, and he's been an aficionado ever since."

One thing for sure, when Love isn't attacking a golf course, he's attacking life head-on. Golf is the biggest part of his life, but he isn't about to devote every second to it. There are golf courses to design, deer to hunt, bass to catch and, of course, a family to care for. All of life is precious to Davis Love, even more so because of the death of his father.

In 1988 Love and Robin went to Hawaii late in the season for the nonofficial tournament at Kapalua, an easygoing, easy-money event that is especially popular with the wives. A few days before going to Hawaii, his father, the only teacher Love had ever had, suggested that if he wanted to take his game to the next level, he ought to think about finding another instructor. He was concerned that he was no longer capable of motivating his son or of finding that little something in his swing or in his psyche that would allow him to win major golf tournaments.

Davis Love II was not a great player in his own right, though he did contend in the 1964 Masters, just days before Davis III was born. But he had become a nationally recognized golf instructor who traveled the United States giving high-profile clinics. While his son was en route to Hawaii for the Kapalua tournament, the elder Davis would be going to Jacksonville with two other pros to conduct a golf school. Davis Love II never made it. The private plane that was carrying the three pros crashed into a pine forest short of the Jacksonville Airport, killing all aboard.

From the day he started playing the game, Davis Love III seemed destined to be good, and possibly great. At least that's what his father envisioned. He had lived for the son and now, as Christmas of 1988 approached, the son would have to live for the father. Gone were the long, sometimes tedious nights at the range with dad driving the son to just hit one more shot, just try this little maneuver, just move your fingers a hair this way, just put the ball back in your stance a little. Gone were the nights when the father, having kept notes on yellow legal pads, would sit with the son and go over every detail to the extent that the son would want to run away screaming.

"Golf changed for me when my father died," says Love. "From that time on, some of the pure love and joy of the game went out of me. I was motivated to practice hard and to play hard to win. I wanted to win because of him. But I think it became just a little more work than it was before."

As Love started to win tournaments in the '90s, it became increasingly more frustrating that he was unable to even contend in a major. In the 27 majors he had played through 1994, he had failed to finish higher than 11th and had missed the cut 11 times. That was an especially poor record for a player who seemed to have so much ability. After all, he could hit the ball a hundred miles, his 6-foot-3 frame producing a huge and powerful swing arc. He had soft hands, and the short game didn't seem to be much of a problem. If anything, he was an erratic iron player, especially with the short irons. It's not uncommon for big hitters to have trouble with the little clubs. Realizing he needed to improve this aspect of his game, Love hired Jack Lumpkin to be his new coach. Lumpkin worked on cutting down his swing, harnessing his power both to make him more accurate and to gain better feel.

Fate often intervenes. And so it did in 1995. Love had played poorly in 1994 and hadn't qualified for the 1995 Masters. The only way that he could get an invitation to the Masters was by winning the final tour event the week before it at New Orleans. He did.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, legendary golf coach Harvey Penick was near death as Masters time approached. He was best known as the coach of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, but he had also coached Davis Love II when he was attending the University of Texas, and he later got to know Davis III. Shortly after Love's win in New Orleans, Harvey Penick died, but not before being told that Love had made the Masters with a desperate victory.

Crenshaw credited the hand of Harvey Penick, coming down from on high, with guiding him to his emotional and surprising victory in the 1995 Masters. When Crenshaw and Kite were returning to Austin for Penick's funeral just before the Masters began, Crenshaw told Love to stay and practice because that's what Penick would have wanted him to do. He did, and he finished second, his first near miss in a major. Love also tied for fourth in the 1995 U.S. Open before tying for second at Oakland Hills last year.

He's a work in progress, one who's come a long way since he quit the University of North Carolina after two years to turn professional. (Love is the player who gave fellow Tar Heel Michael Jordan his first set of clubs.) When Jordan's golf gambling difficulties became known, Love would often say, "I feel like the person who gave Dillinger his first gun."

Through the travail of his father's death and the disappointment of his performance in major tournaments, Love remains one of the most approachable and decent fellows on the tour. He makes sure to introduce himself to all the volunteers who walk with his group as scorekeepers or sign carriers. He's uniformly polite in victory or defeat. At the 1993 Ryder Cup in England, when a European Tour team member's daughter fell violently ill and was taken to the hospital, Love wrote a note to the family expressing his family's support. In addition to being raised to be a golfer--and a world-class one--he was also raised to be a gentleman, and a world-class one at that. He is far from being a one-dimensional golf clone, and his many facets might be a contributing factor to his improvement. At least Faxon thinks so.

At the 1995 Ryder Cup in Rochester, New York, Love spotted Faxon in the hall of the team's hotel and, in a sort of impassioned stage whisper, asked him to come to his room to see something. What, thought Faxon, could be so important during this incredibly pressure-filled event? A new driver? A fancy cashmere sweater? A box of Cubans? From under the bed in his hotel room, Love pulled out a large case that obviously wasn't meant to hold golf clubs, and probably not sweaters or cigars, either. From inside the case he extracted a huge hunting bow, a high-tech compound bow with all sorts of widgets and whatsits on it. "He was just so proud of this thing," says Faxon. "He'd got it the week before in the Binghamton [New York, event], where we had just played a tournament. It cost $2,000. He was just so proud of it that he had to show it to somebody."

Love's ability to diversify his life has taken some of the pressure off golf. "I think he's a better player since he's taken on all these things in his life," says Faxon. "I mean, I don't think he's a better player because he smokes cigars, but he's a better player for getting his mind off the game and avoiding burnout."

For Love, avoiding burnout means little more than returning to Sea Island. "I don't see myself playing hard until I make the Senior Tour," he says. "I'd like to do other things. I'd like to get out of the limelight. Sure, I'd like to be successful [enough] to walk away from the game. Maybe show up at the Masters every year and be an elder statesman. But I'd also like to win a major, and I'll be trying hard for a long time to do that."

Back on Sea Island, Love goes to the practice range, or out on the golf course, with cigars in his bag. Half the reason for playing golf when he's home is so that he can smoke cigars with his buddies. And you know what? Even a $15 dollar Cuban keeps the bugs away.

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for Newsday.

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