21st career win puts Love where he's wanted to be
Davis Love III had not returned to Augusta National since missing the cut in the 2011 Masters Tournament.
He hadn’t been back to watch or participate in the Par-3 Contest as a past PGA champion, not because he was getting too old and felt he no longer could compete on the big course, but because he absolutely believed he could still compete at the highest level.
“It’s disappointing not to get in; to go there might make it worse,” Love said. “I’m walking 18 holes going, ‘I can hit it like that. Why aren’t I playing a tournament this week.’ So going to the Masters would have been tough.”
Love returns for the 20th time to the stage on which he seemed destined to win. He was born April 13, 1964, the day after the Masters in which his father, Davis Love Jr., shared the first-round lead with eventual champion Arnold Palmer before finishing tied for 34th in the second of his two Masters appearances.
Only a week shy of his 52nd birthday, Love is the second-oldest player who isn’t a past champion to qualify for the Masters (Greg Norman did it at age 53 by finishing third in the 2008 British Open). His 21st career victory in Greensboro last August at age 51 years, 4 months, 10 days made Love the third-oldest golfer to win on the PGA Tour behind Masters winners Sam Snead and Art Wall.
That victory reopened doors that most golfers Love’s age have had permanently closed. Even with a lifetime PGA Tour exemption for winning 20 times, Love had to mail out requests to get in some of his favorite events. Others were out of reach entirely.
“I wanted to win a golf tournament to get back in the Masters,” said Love, who will serve for the second time as Ryder Cup captain this fall. “One of my biggest things was just to get back in the top 125 again.
“A lot comes with that. To win obviously is a lot more. But getting in the top 125 means a lot of tournaments I don’t have to get exemptions to or get back in the Players Championship. It kills me the last couple of years not to play in the Players Championship. My friends at home assume I’m in the Players Championship because I won it twice. That one and the Masters are kind of crushing when you don’t get in there.”
Sometimes when he was here, Love left the Masters crushed anyway. For a decade from 1995-2004, Love was a fixture on Augusta’s leaderboards, finishing among the top seven six times. Twice he finished runner-up in heartbreaking fashion to Ben Crenshaw and Jose Maria Olazabal in 1995 and 1999, respectively.
Like Tom Weiskopf and Greg Norman, Love’s presumed destiny at Augusta National was never fulfilled.
“That seemed like one of the tournaments that I would win easily …” Love said of the Masters. “I don’t feel like I blew one, just that some guys shot better scores.”
Love, in fact, won a record five times the week after the Masters on a Hilton Head Island course that wouldn’t seem naturally suited to his bomber’s game.
“People ask me every year, ‘Why are you so successful at Hilton Head?’” he said. “Because I was pointing toward the Masters, then I relaxed and played good. …”
Expectations were never higher for Love than in 1995, when he came to Augusta fresh off a victory in New Orleans. After a practice round that year, Love wanted to catch a private plane with Crenshaw and Tom Kite to attend Harvey Penick’s funeral. Penick was also one of the guiding lights in Love’s career as a close mentor to his own father. Crenshaw and Kite insisted Love stay in Augusta to keep preparing for the tournament.
“ ‘You’re playing great; you stay here,’ ” Love said they told him. “And then Ben wins.”
“The 1995 one stings, and I love it at the same time,” Love said. “Because I love that Ben Crenshaw won. He’s one of my all-time heroes and good friends and the Harvey Penick story and all that. But it still is tough and still stings a little bit. I shot a score that would have won a whole lot of Masters and I didn’t win. That was kind of disappointing.”
Love concedes he has missed being in the thick of April in Augusta the past five years. He misses lunches in the clubhouse grill room and seeing old friends under the tree and, most of all, competing on his favorite course.
“Oh, God, yeah,” he said. “I always said at the beginning of the week that I’m not going to watch the Masters. It’s not going to be fun for me to watch it. Then on Sunday afternoon I’m always watching it, it’s so cool to see the end of it. It’s definitely disappointing. And it’s a big thrill to get to go back.”
In the meantime, Love never yielded to his age. He underwent spinal-fusion surgery in 2013 and foot surgery last April to prolong his competitive career. He knows that if his putter heats up as it did in Greensboro, he still hits the ball far enough and strikes it well enough to compete with the young stars who are less than half his age.
“If I didn’t think that I could go to the Masters and hit good shots and make birdies I wouldn’t want to go” Love said. “I want to go because I think I can still play a little bit.”