Every year they straggle onto South Carolina's Hilton Head
Island, in the grip of PMS (Post-Masters Syndrome). The symptoms
aren't pretty: frayed nerves, violent putting strokes and
emotional outbursts at the merest mention of green formal wear.
For some PGA Tour players the tranquillity of the MCI Classic is
the perfect antidote to this maddening spring fever. Others find
a cure far more elusive. Only one thing is certain. "This ain't
the Masters," says Paul Azinger. "Thank goodness."
This is not a knock on the Masters. Not exactly. The annual
stressfest at Augusta is still the most prestigious tournament
in golf. It's just not much fun for the players. Hilton Head, on
the other hand, is like a working vacation. Wedged between the
sunbathing, sailing, fishing, beer drinking and bike riding is a
golf tournament, and a pretty good one. But, no, this ain't the
Masters, and here's another easy way to tell: Davis Love III is
your 1998 champion. This is the same Love who opened the Masters
74-75 and was in such a deep funk that he had to be coaxed out
of his room for dinner on Friday night. This is the guy who shot
a final-round 78 and walked off the last green "as steamed as
I've seen him," according to his wife, Robin. In his 13 years on
Tour, Love is 0 for Augusta but has now won IV times at Hilton
Head, a tournament record. On Sunday evening, flush from
scorching Harbour Town Golf Links with a closing 65 and looking
resplendent in the wonderfully tacky plaid victor's jacket, Love
reflected on what a difference a week makes.
"This place is a blast. It's one of the most fun events we have
out here," he said. "Last week I didn't have much fun. I
should've just relaxed and played without trying so hard. That
seemed to work O.K. this week."
Even an understated fellow like Love had to smile at that last
bit. His seven-shot margin of victory over Glen Day was also a
tournament record, and he called his seven-birdie, one-bogey
closing round one of the finest of his career. It took Love all
of eight holes to turn the final round into garbage time. Two
strokes in the lead after a 67-68-66 start, he couldn't stop
knocking over flagsticks on Harbour Town's testy front nine. His
fourth birdie of the day, set up by a seven-iron shot that
stopped six inches from the cup at the 466-yard par-4 8th,
coupled with Phil Mickelson's bogey, pushed the lead to six, and
Love never let up.
April 26, 1998
Love's unsporting dominance of the tournament seemed very much
at odds with the hospitality that he and Robin displayed aboard
their 53-foot sportfishing boat, Lexseas, which they anchored in
the shadow of the lighthouse that frames Harbour Town's 18th
hole and filled to overflowing with friends, family members and
fellow players. Love not only partied on the boat but also slept
there, and it provided him with such peace of mind that he
figured the best way to quiet his nerves on Sunday morning was
to scrub the deck.
Mickelson, too, spent his time on Hilton Head attempting to
decompress from the Masters. "Monday and Tuesday, all I did was
hang out," he said. Alas, for the second straight week he began
the final round in second, two shots back, and for the second
straight week he performed a Phil phlop. Hitting the ball
erratically, he suffered four bogeys on the front side to make
the turn seven behind Love, and the rest of the way he looked
like a dead man walking. He finished with a 73 to tie for third.
Perhaps Mickelson found it difficult to execute a proper
shoulder turn with such a large monkey on his back. There used
to be a lively debate about who owned the dread title of Best
Player Never to Have Won a Major, Mickelson or Mark O'Meara, but
now the 27-year-old lefty has the tag all to himself. (Colin
Montgomerie is off the hook until he proves he can win any kind
of tournament in the U.S.)
"It's a compliment," Mickelson says, not sounding very
flattered. "A lot of good players haven't won a major
championship. It's a compliment to be considered one of the best."
So he's comfortable with the title? "Well, for now."
Proving how debilitating PMS can be, Mickelson was the only
Masters contender to make a blip on Hilton Head's radar screen.
O'Meara was present in body but not spirit. He had to scramble
to make the cut and finished a spent 24th. Even that was 55
spots ahead of Jim Furyk, who was fourth at Augusta. David Duval
phoned in a last-minute withdrawal "to pout over his near-miss
in the Masters," as the Savannah Morning News put it. Fred
Couples never planned to show up, while Azinger did his best
Couples imitation and pulled out after a first-round 70 because
of back pain.
O'Meara, who regretfully committed long ago to the MCI as well
as to this week's Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic, is too
much of a pro to pick up his marbles and go home, a la Duval. "I
guess I'm old-fashioned, but to me a commitment is a
commitment," he said. Anyway, if he had skipped Hilton Head, he
would have missed the dozens of notes plastered to his locker,
the bottle of champagne from Payne Stewart stashed inside, the
congratulatory phone calls from everyone from Penny Hardaway to
Rick Dees and the standing O's that greeted him at every green.
He also would have missed the opportunity to grouse about not
making the cover of SI despite his Masters win. Approached by
this writer after last Friday's round, O'Meara, a smile frozen
on his face, said, "Questions? I've got a question for you. What
do I have to do to make the cover of your magazine? I know the
Masters is just a tiny little tournament, but Pedro Martinez?
C'mon. I mean, what's a bigger event, my winning the Masters or
a pitcher on the Red Sox winning his second game of the season?"
Speaking of questions, Love was grappling with some tough ones
at Hilton Head, his stellar performance there notwithstanding.
Since breaking through at the PGA Championship last August, he
has often spoken of how the victory bulletproofed his
confidence, but the results tell a different story. At the Ryder
Cup in September, Love put up a doughnut in four matches, and a
month later he was leading the Tour Championship by two shots
with eight holes to play but finished third. (Had Love held on,
he would have won the money title and could have been voted
Player of the Year over Tiger Woods.) This season has brought
more Sunday disasters. Leading February's Buick Invitational
with nine holes to go, Love made a pair of galling bogeys and
slipped to third. At the Bay Hill Invitational in March he was
part of the powerhouse final group with Woods and Ernie Els but
over the 36 holes got dusted by Els to the tune of 11 strokes.
The next week at the Players Championship, Love started the last
round only three shots behind eventual champ Justin Leonard but
shot 80. Then came the Masters, after which Love's final-round
scoring average ballooned to 73.86, 128th on Tour and nearly
three strokes higher than his overall average.
On the eve of the final round at Hilton Head, Love was asked if
he was feeling vulnerable on Sundays. "Not at all," he said.
"There's no urgency. I don't have anything to prove to myself or
anyone else. The only thing holding me back has been bad
timing--the wrong shot at the wrong time, or a little slip in my
concentration when I can least afford it. Sure, I want to win
because I always want to win. I want to win because I don't want
to lose to Phil Mickelson, ever. But it's not a must-win by any
On Sunday evening, after securing his first victory of the
season and leaping from 32nd to ninth on the money list, Love
came clean. "This was a big round for me, a big victory," he
said. "It's really going to jump-start my year, which up until
now hasn't really gone as I expected."
Still, Love wasn't ready to look ahead without first looking
back. "As sweet as this week was, last week is still
disappointing," he said. "It's even a little bit more
disappointing now. I'm the same guy. I didn't discover anything
new, I didn't pound balls all week to fix something. I just
picked the wrong week."
If anything can cure these post-Augusta blues, it ought to be
the blissful scene Love was part of on Sunday evening. He was
standing on Harbour Town's picturesque 18th green, basking in
the soft light of the setting sun and being serenaded by the
muffled sounds of a foghorn symphony, the traditional salute the
yachtsmen afford the winner at Hilton Head. Love broke the spell
just a little by examining his multihued winner's jacket and
concluding wistfully, "There's not quite enough green in it."
"It's a compliment," Mickelson says. "A lot of good players
haven't won a major."