Love's long-awaited return comes at The Players

Davis Love III (file photo)

Davis Love III (file photo)

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Hilton Head, SC - Harbour Town Golf Links

12:37:40 PM ET. 04/18/2014




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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Davis Love III wanted to come back at Hilton Head (where he has won five times), did not get doctor’s clearance to play in New Orleans and was a late scratch in Charlotte last week. So as he eases his way back onto the PGA Tour nearly three months to the day he underwent a two-level disk fusion in his neck, he’ll do so at a place nearly as familiar to him as his front porch.

Love will be making his 28th Players start at TPC Sawgrass, a stat he says speaks to two things: “One, that means you’re old,” said the 49-year-old Love with a grin. “And two, it means you’ve stayed pretty competitive.”

Three months ago, the numbness in Love’s left arm caused by impinged nerves closing inside his left shoulder had him frustrated to the point that something had to be done. One of the game’s premier power players since the 1980s, he was hitting shots that had little pop. He played the first round in Phoenix, shot 72, and even took a cortisone shot in his neck that evening to be able to play the next morning.

But when dawn arrived, he couldn’t answer the call.

A week later, he was on an operating table in Atlanta, with Dr. Regis Haid performing surgery similar to that which NFL quarterback Peyton Manning had undergone. Once Love got on the other side of his fears and apprehensions, he realized he should have had the surgery much, much earlier.

“It was hard,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, Robin (his wife) and I drove up there to Atlanta (from Sea Island, Ga.) on a Thursday night, and that was the longest 5-hour drive I’ve ever had. … I literally woke up after surgery and I knew I was fine. I was so much better.”

He was stroking putts the very next day, chipping one-handed soon after that, and hitting full shots and playing in eight weeks. His longtime agent and friend, Mac Barnhardt, says seeing Love’s unbridled enthusiasm to compete again is akin to trying to hold back a little kid from running downstairs on Christmas morning.

“He’s been trying to push it hard to get back, pushing hard and then going to see his (physical) therapist,” Barnhardt said. “He’s so competitive. He may not always look the part, but he wants it so badly. He’s definitely juiced up to play. Is that a good thing? We’ll see.”

Love, who has 20 PGA Tour victories and more than $42 million in career earnings, will be eligible for the Champions Tour next April, but his mind is on getting competitive quickly once again on the Tour he currently plays, and taking on the game’s very best. He has many good memories at TPC Sawgrass, where he won in 1992 and again in 2003, the second victory delivered with a flawless, 8-under 64 on an arduous March day when the North Florida temperatures dipped into the 50s and the winds gusted past 25 mph. As the rest of the field was blown away, Love put together a round he says might stand as the very best of his career.

How good was it? Fred Couples, Love’s good pal and the man playing alongside him that day, called it the best round he’d ever seen by “not just Davis – anybody. I’ve never seen a round like that. … He hit about 63 great shots, so it was easy to say, ‘Nice shot, nice shot, nice swing, nice putt.’”

Love only recently watched a few highlights of it and heard Couples’ raves as it played out on Golf Channel. It’s the type of performance that Love, now healthy, thinks he still has inside him. For now, the expectations need to be realistic (“I realize I’m blessed just to be back playing”), but down the road he has far higher aspirations.

“I want to make the Presidents Cup team,” Love said, “and I told (2014 U.S. Ryder Cup captain) Tom Watson, I want to be at the Ryder Cup, but I want to play. You have to have big goals like that . . . I’m healthy again and my mind is clear. I think I can get back. I really do.”

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