2005: Love pines for Pinehurst

Davis Love III’s love affair with Pinehurst dates to his early teen-age years. Not only did he play the North and South Junior there a few times, he often would tag along with his father, a renowned teacher, for instructional schools at the resort. Those were priceless days, when a wide-eyed 14-year-old boy would cut his golf teeth in the sandhills of North Carolina and learn pro bono at the hand of highly knowledgeable men.

He would hang out with the likes of Paul Runyan, Bob Toski, Jim Flick, Peter Kostis and his father, famous gurus all. They’d play nine holes or so after long days at the school. Then there were those special days in the late 1970s and early ’80s when Sam Snead came in to give playing lessons. Little Love would be the cart chauffeur. The kid was a happy sponge.

“That was incredible,” said Love, still sounding like an impressionable teen. “The stories and the ball-striking. He’d play the same stretch of holes with different groups. He’d say he would hit it down the left side, and then he’d do it. He hit cuts and draws. It was incredible.”

On one particular special evening, Love was playing the back nine of the famed No. 2 course with his father and Jack Lumpkin when he hit a poor pitch on the 15th hole. Davis Jr. had seen enough. “Jack,” he said to Lumpkin, “you’re going to help him with his wedge game.” So, as dad watched with arms folded, Lumpkin tutored the kid on pitching for 30 minutes in the hollow in front of the green to the right.

“He showed me all those things a teen-ager needs,” said Love, still a regular Lumpkin student. “That lesson sticks out not just because it was a great lesson, but because it was on No. 2 at 7:30 at night. I got more out of the schools than anybody because I got more lessons than anybody.”

You might say they have paid off.

Now 41, Love has won 18 times on the PGA Tour, most notably the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot when he lapped the field and was greeted by an apropos rainbow at the last. He also has won twice at The Players Championship, twice at Pebble Beach and five times at Harbour Town. Add all the zeros and commas over 20 seasons and you get more than $30 million official.

When he broke through with that major victory at the PGA in such convincing fashion – by five strokes over runner-up Justin Leonard – Love and others thought he would vault to more major glory. But instead his career has been marked by so many near misses – the 26 seconds, the 14 thirds, the 2-7 playoff record, the 16 top 10s in majors besides the PGA victory.

“I’m surprised, too,” Love said. “So we’re working toward the next five or six years. Hopefully we can make up for lost time and get a little back.”

Lost chances, and painful ones. Second alone at the Masters in 1995 and ’99. Tied for fourth in the 2003 British Open won by the unheralded Ben Curtis. Tied for fourth at the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. And then the one that really got away, the 1996 Open at Oakland Hills. Love bogeyed the last two holes – including three-putting from 18 feet at 18 – and lost by one to Steve Jones. Nor did he start well, bogeying the first hole of the tournament despite hitting a sand wedge approach from the middle of the fairway.

“You remember your close calls,” Love said. “I’ve been close enough to win and have played well enough to win an Open. Steve Jones and I joke about it some. He gave me the (MCI) Heritage one year and I overpaid him.”

Health issues, stresses of raising a family, a course design business, myriad other interests and the major dominance of Tiger Woods are among the things that have been in Love’s major path over the last decade. Back and neck problems have sometimes limited his practice and workout time along with his effectiveness.

“All those things are truisms, all have contributed (to not winning more majors),” said longtime friend Billy Andrade, who has taken his family to Love’s Sea Island, Ga., home on spring break for a camp-like menu offering, among other things, horse riding, jet-skiing, hunting, fishing in a stocked pond, swimming, batting in cages, trampoline jumping and jacuzzi soaking. “But the No. 1 thing out here with anyone is health.

“If anyone wonders why he hasn’t won more majors, you have to look at how healthy he’s been with his neck and back. And he’s done an incredible job of not talking about it. It’s very hard to win and very, very hard to dominate when you’re injured and not 100 percent. If he was 100 percent, he would’ve done better. If the car’s always in the shop, how can you drive it?”

Rick Smith, who has worked with numerous professionals on their swings, says the “public doesn’t realize the impact” variables such as injuries, family matters and nongolf interests can have on a career.

“Davis has been hurt a lot and that hasn’t helped,” Smith said. “And I know he likes other things (hobbies) and his kids have been growing up. If he’s healthy and wants to, he’ll be there. When all you’ve done is play competitive golf and you get hurt, you see life as a whole. There are other things you enjoy and want to do to be happy. It comes down to priorities and what you want.”

Which brings us to Pinehurst, site of the 105th U.S. Open. That would be something Love wants. He has played the No. 2 course about 100 times. He knows the humped greens like a reptile expert knows the back of a turtle. His most important amateur title came there, the 1984 North and South. And then there were all those quick trips there as a college student at North Carolina, about an hour away on U.S. 501.

“We’d say, ‘Coach, we’re going down to Pinehurst,’ ” Love recalled. “We’d always be racing back and forth on 501. I remember my brother (Mark) getting pulled over in a new red Thunderbird. The cop told him it took him eight miles to catch him.”

Love himself needs little time explaining what a big catch in those parts would mean to him.

“Pinehurst is very special to me,” he said. “A lot of good memories. It’s like going to St. Andrews – the whole town is golf. It’s a throw-back town.

“Winning the Open would be special, but at Pinehurst it would be even more special.”

Love is willing, and by the day seems more able. Winless since August 2003, he was plagued by the most severe neck pain of his career the last half of 2004. The bad back also has bothered him in some previous years, and some pundits suggest he has underachieved.

To remedy the latest ailment, Love has committed to working out more aggressively and consistently. He has been exercising four or five days per week for a couple of months under the guidance of trainer Randy Myers in Sea Island.

“I’m feeling better,” Love said. “I’m hitting it good, practicing more and excited about playing golf.”

He had five top 10s in his first 12 starts, including a tie for second at the MCI Heritage. He also missed four cuts, including at the Masters, where he shot 76-75.

“Everybody says I’m not playing very well, but I feel good,” Love said. Love, p48

“I’ve played more this year on and off Tour. I’m hitting it well on the range, hitting it long, but not scoring. When I get my confidence back I’ll be fine. I realize now my confidence was bad because neck and shoulder problems held me back. I couldn’t hit a 3- or 4-iron the way I should. But on (par-5) No. 11 at Colonial (in May), I cut a 3-iron that bounced up there to 5 feet. That’s the way I used to hit a 3-iron.”

He missed the cut at Colonial by one stroke. He also missed in the start before that, at the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, N.C. He left there and went home and shot a course-record 64 at the new Tom Fazio-designed Frederica.

“My best round of the year was Sunday at Charlotte,” Love cracked, “but I was at home.”

Love’s neck problems started in 2000. He describes the feeling as a “nerve thing going down my arm.” He played only 20 events in 2001. He neglected working out in 2003 because he was playing so well (four victories), but then pain returned last year.

“The muscles get tight, I get weak and I just don’t last long,” he said. “I just waited until it got bad to do something about it. But now that I’ve worked out the last couple of months, I don’t wake up the next day and feel tired. Now I wake up ready to go. The more you work out, the better you feel and the stronger you are. I look back and see that I worked out the most during my best years. I’ve just never been consistent. It’d be like a diet; I’d get off it.”

Now Love stretches and does cardiovascular work before rounds, that is, when he can find room in a crowded Tour fitness trailer. The payback is more energy. And now that his neck is better, he says he’s no longer “guessing over the ball” and no longer “making compensations.”

“I’m excited about going forward,” Love said. “Confidence can come very quickly. I have a feeling I’ll be ready (for) the U.S. Open.”

Love was reminded of Pinehurst recently upon recalling a speech the late Runyan, a fitness buff, gave years ago at a PGA teaching summit there. Runyan promised the group he would work out the next 365 days. He came back the next year and apologized, saying he missed five days.

Love marvels at the story and embraces the message.

“That,” he said, “is where I’ve got to get.”

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