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Archive for Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Fresh start for Love

Ugly 2006 changes course with Sunday’s win

October 11, 2006

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What looked like the end of the road now feels like a new start for Davis Love III.

Until he ran off three straight birdies on the back nine that carried him to a two-shot victory in Greensboro, Love had every reason to want to purge 2006 from his memory. He had gone five of the last seven years without winning, but this was particularly ugly.

First came a wasted opportunity to capture his first World Golf Championship. Love missed a 3-foot par putt that cost him the lead and momentum, fanned a 6-iron from the fairway to fall further behind and wound up losing in the final match to Geoff Ogilvy.

He made history at The Players Championship for all the wrong reasons. After opening with a 65 to raise his hopes of joining Jack Nicklaus as the only three-time winners, Love followed with an 83 and became the first player in the 33-year history of golf's fifth major to go from first-to-worst, missing the cut by four shots with a quadruple-bogey 9 on his final hole.

The real majors didn't exactly bring redemption.

He never challenged at the Masters, then missed the cut in the U.S. Open and the British Open. His last hope was the PGA Championship, and Love was only one shot out of the lead going into the weekend until he closed with rounds of 73-76. Worse yet, he only needed to finish in a two-way tie for ninth to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team, but instead tied for 34th and stayed home for the first time since 1991.

"One good round on the weekend and I would have made it," he said.

It was a kick in the gut for Love to be at Firestone, listening to 12 players talk about boarding a charter flight for two days of practice in Ireland, knowing the closest he would get to the Ryder Cup was in front of his television.

Davis Love III reacts after a poor tee shot during the second round of the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga. After struggling for much of the 2006 season, Love had a reversal of fortune last week, winning the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro on Sunday.

Davis Love III reacts after a poor tee shot during the second round of the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Ga. After struggling for much of the 2006 season, Love had a reversal of fortune last week, winning the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro on Sunday.

The greater insult was hearing his name kicked around as a possible captain for 2008.

About the only thing he didn't lose was hope. Love took four weeks off to get strong for one final push in the last month of the season, and it paid off Sunday with his victory at the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro.

OK, so it wasn't the PGA or The Players Championship, nor was it the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. But it sure felt that way to Love, 42, who had gone 76 starts without a trophy.

At his age, in his health, the next win is no guarantee.

"I'll always remember this one, because it's like starting over again, like getting your first win all over again," Love said.

It was his 19th career victory on the PGA Tour, one win away from having lifetime membership. Among his peers, only Tiger Woods (54), Phil Mickelson (29), Vijay Singh (29) and Greg Norman (20) have reached that level.

Love also climbed 24 spots to No. 15 on the money list, assuring his spot in the Tour Championship for the 12th straight year.

And he moved a fraction closer to the Hall of Fame, which is sure to feature a fierce debate. Love has been dealing with expectations his entire career, and even in victory he cannot dodge the question of whether he met his potential. As he was strolling up the 18th fairway at Greensboro, a TV analyst noted that Love was one short of 20 victories, then wondered if his talent should not have produced 30.

Even so, Love's credentials are strong. His victories include one major ('97 PGA Championship at Winged Foot) and two titles in The Players Championship. He was so solid for so long that Love played on every Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team since 1993, a streak that ended when he forgot the words his father once wrote on the inside of a book.

"Follow your dreams and enjoy the trip."

Love has never had a problem chasing his dreams. It's the enjoyment part that got lost along the way.

For the 20 years that Love has played on the PGA Tour, he has heard the same advice from sports psychologist Bob Rotella: Stop thinking about the results and just play.

"Either I don't get it or he doesn't get it," Love said recently.

He should have learned his lesson at Winged Foot in 1997, when Love twice built a five-shot lead in the final round and started thinking about what it would mean to win the PGA Championship. Every time he looked ahead to the trophy presentation, Justin Leonard cut into the lead and made Love go back to work.

For those who think Love is too soft, he showed he has a hard head.

Even with two decades of experience, and more than his share of victory droughts, Love fell into the trap of being so results-oriented that he lost track of the game that got him there. All he cared about this year was making the Ryder Cup team, and the harder he tried, the worse he played.

Reality set in Monday morning after the PGA when captain Tom Lehman called to tell him he was not on the team.

"I told Tom Lehman about a month before the PGA that I was going to play good before the end of the year," Love said. "I just couldn't promise him when it was going to be. I certainly learned a big lesson this year because I wanted the Ryder Cup so bad that I let it get in the way of everything else I was doing."

The Ryder Cup is behind him. The Tour Championship awaits, then a trip to Kapalua for the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship that kicks off a new season. Love can't wait to get started.

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