2006: Green jacket quest on Love’s plate

A few weeks back, Davis Love III was cleaning out the kitchen cabinets in his Sea Island, Ga., home when he discovered a pair of silver salvers tucked amid the more traditional clutter of chipped serving bowls and salad tongs.

“It’s funny things that trigger your memory,” Love said of the two salvers he received for finishing second potato at the grandest of golf’s gatherings.

The Masters doles out more trinkets than the folks on “Antique Roadshow,” and few have collected like Love.

Along with the salvers, Love has six crystal vases for posting a day’s low score and eight crystal goblets for scoring an eagle. He can comfortably serve a family of six on Masters engraved regalia.

But he can’t do it in the Champion’s locker room at Augusta National.

Of all the grand jackpots that have eluded Love – when he tees off in this week’s Masters it will mark his 33rd major since his breakthrough at the 1997 PGA – this is the one he pines for. His Augusta resume is less Greg Norman than it is Norman Mailer. There have been no fiery collapses, no historic gaffes, just solid rounds that ended up on the wrong side of Karma’s curious hand.

In 1995, Love closed with a day’s-best 66 only to be lost as a footnote in Ben Crenshaw’s emotional tribute to Harvey Penick. Four years later, Love posted four cards at or below par on his way to another bridesmaid finish, two shots behind Jose Maria Olazabal.

For all his scrapes with Augusta success, however, Love has chosen to view the goblet as half full.

“The way I’m thinking now is I have the experience to win one,” Love said. “You’ve paid your dues, you’ve had your chances, you know what it feels like. You just have to keep getting there.”

Love craves a green jacket for all the right reasons. Because he’s a son of the South, having grown up a few hours southeast of Augusta on St. Simons Island. Because his father, renowned teacher Davis Love Jr., played the Masters twice, tying for 34th in 1964. Because, as a child, he waited for the first week of April like most kids eagerly await Christmas morning. But maybe most important, because he’s running out of time.

Love turns 42 the Thursday after the Masters. Although that hardly makes him a relic by golf standards, it’s impossible to ignore the march of time. At what point does one realize there are more majors in the rearview mirror than on the horizon?

In his past three seasons, Love has been among the top 15 money winners and a Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup team member. Some would call that a career. Love laments. During that same window, he has been mired in an unexplainable 0-for-65 victory slump.

During that stretch, he’s had five runner-up finishes – including this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship – and was a late contender at the ’05 PGA before making a mess of Monday.

During that time frame, not coincidentally, Love was a mess physically. Now, for perhaps the first time in a decade, he’s healthy. Years of back and neck ailments have given way to a man obsessed with fitness and his golf swing.

“I would tell him to do something, and a little while later he’d come back and say, ‘I know that’s right, but I’m not sure I can do that (physically),’ ” said Jack Lumpkin, Love’s longtime swing coach. “I would have to say OK, ‘Increase your knee flex and do this and this.’ Just compensation to allow him to play so he didn’t hurt himself.

“Right now, we’re not limited by that. I don’t feel like my hands are tied at all.”

Thanks to a rigorous workout and stretching program, Love’s neck and back pain are gone. Unfortunately, there has been no shortage of aches on the golf course.

In 2006, Love’s game has had more peaks and valleys than a double black diamond run at Sky Valley. Opening rounds of 69-67 put him in contention for his third Pebble Beach title before he went 4 over on the weekend. Saturday and Sunday at Doral and Honda were similarly pedestrian.

Things went particularly sideways at The Players Championship. After grabbing a share of the first-round lead with a near-flawless 65, Love flailed his way to a first-to-worst 83, missing the cut by four strokes.

What happened at TPC was a high-profile and painful example of Love’s “MO” in ’06. Brilliance mixed with inexplicable bouts of ineptitude. His final-round scoring average is a woeful 71.8, nearly three strokes higher than his 2003 average.

“I’m playing kind of different than I’ve ever really played. Kind of sporadic good and sporadic bad,” Love said. “Whereas I usually just play good, solid top-10 golf. Once I get out of my own way, that’s kept me out of a chance to win.”

The TPC sting prompted Love to cut short a hunting trip with his son and play the BellSouth Classic, which he hadn’t played since 2002.

“I felt like I needed it,” said Love, who tied for 57th in Atlanta with rounds of 71-69-75-71. “I’m hitting the ball good, and I’m actually playing good. I’m just scoring all over the map.”

As warm-ups go, BellSouth may have been the perfect rebound tournament to unload all that TPC baggage. Besides, how many turkeys can one man bag?

But Augusta is a different animal, and with DL III, unfair expectations are part and parcel. When he walked up the 18th fairway at Winged Foot in ’97 under a goose bump-inducing rainbow, the future seemed paved with crystal of the champion’s sort.

“You arrogantly think if you win one (major) that the rest of them are easy,” Love said at last year’s PGA. “The second one is just as hard.”

Would he trade his five-pack of Heritage plaid coats for a green jacket? Sure.

How about those two silver salvers?

“I want to turn those into the whole (winner’s clubhouse trophy),” Love said. “I want to win the whole thing.”







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