Love Machine Davis Love III shot a career round to win the Players, but does that means he's a favorite for Augusta?

April 07, 2003

The pairing was at once full of promise and nostalgia: two
longtime friends, Fred Couples and Davis Love III, in the
next-to-last twosome in the final round of last week's Players
Championship. It was a flashback that didn't go unnoticed.
"Maybe it'll be like 1992," Love mused the night before, when he
learned that he'd be playing with his old pal. ¶ For the
history-challenged, 1992 was the Summer of Love, as in Couples
and Love. They were the brightest stars in the game, and each
had three wins and had earned more than $1 million (when a
million still meant something) by the end of April. While
ascending to the No. 1 ranking, the then 31-year-old Couples won
the Masters and became golf's king of cool. Love, who beat
Couples in a playoff at the L.A. Open and then won that year's
Players, was, at 28, the young rival. Golf hadn't had a dominant
player in almost a decade, and then suddenly, giddily, there
were two.

Both players faded as quickly as the azaleas in Augusta. Couples
never won another major. In fact, he won only five more times in
the next 11 years. It took another five years for Love to finally
win his only major, the 1997 PGA Championship, a win that even
then was billed as a launching pad to multiple major titles.

This is need-to-know history because in the wake of Love's second
Players victory at the TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach,
Fla., the temptation is to dust off his old pedestal. Yes, Love's
final round was impressive. He shot an eight-under-par 64 on a
cold and windy day at Sawgrass's unforgiving Stadium course to
blow past the third-round leaders, Jay Haas and Padraig
Harrington. Love finished at 17 under and won by six strokes.
"It's the best round of golf I've ever seen played," said
Couples, who began the round tied with Love but shot a 74 and
slipped to 10th.

"That 64 is one of the best rounds ever," seconded the
49-year-old Haas, whose runner-up finish earned him a spot in
next week's Masters. "A 64 here in the summer with no wind and
the greens rolling at seven on the stimpmeter would be
impressive." Said gritty Jim Furyk, who shot a 69 in the nasty
conditions and tied for fourth, "I played my heart out, but I
didn't see seven or eight under par in my bag today."

This year, however, is not 1992. There is only one star, Tiger
Woods, and the truth is, Love's biggest victory in six years
doesn't change the status quo.

"There have been moments when all of us thought maybe we were
closing the gap on Tiger," said Lee Janzen, a two-time U.S. Open
champion. "Whenever Tiger has the lead, it seems as if you have
to play a miracle round to beat him-like Rich Beem did at the
[2002] PGA. The reality is, everybody else is playing to be
Number 2 in the world. Right now, being Number 2 is a pretty good
thing."

Love, who moved from seventh to third in the World Ranking, took
a step in that direction with this victory, his second this year.
(He won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am with an easy two-putt birdie on
the 18th hole, remember?) He roared past Haas and Harrington on
Sunday with five birdies in a row, starting at the difficult 8th
hole, then slammed the door with an eagle at the par-5 16th after
hooking his tee shot into the pines but getting a lucky break and
having an open shot to the green. "At least now I'm back to where
I was when I was picked as a guy who had a chance to win at
Augusta," Love said. "The last couple of years, I wasn't one of
those guys."

That wasn't all his fault. With the lengthening of Augusta
National last year, picking anyone but Woods is like betting on
the Bengals to reach the Super Bowl. If you put Love's Sunday
heroics on hold for a minute, one thing the Players reminded us
is that without Woods, there wouldn't be a favorite for the
Masters. Did somebody say the gap was closing? It looks more as
though the pretenders fell into the chasm. The form chart for the
2003 Masters reads like What Ever Happened to...?

Start with Ernie Els, ranked second in the world in golf, but
unranked in boxing, having lost his first match to a punching
bag. That bout, held in the garage of Els's house in London last
month, resulted in an injured wrist that ended his run as the
world's hottest player, after he had won four of his first seven
tournaments this year and finished second in two others. He was
squashed by Woods two weeks ago at Bay Hill, and the bad wrist
caused him to withdraw from the Players. He hopes to be healthy
for Augusta.

Phil Mickelson has been missing since the Accenture Match Play
five weeks ago, having stayed close to home and wife Amy for the
birth of their first son, Evan, on March 23. Mickelson, who had
been struggling with his swing before the break, plans to play in
this week's BellSouth Classic.

Slumping isn't Sergio Garcia's new first name, it only seems that
way. His best finish this year is 25th in the 36-man field at the
Mercedes Championships. At the Players he bogeyed the 16th and
18th holes on Friday to miss the cut by a stroke, the third time
he has missed the cut in seven starts this season. He began the
tournament by snap-hooking his drive on the 10th hole so far left
that he immediately reloaded and hit a provisional, although he
found his first ball and salvaged a bogey. "That opening shot was
a little disappointing," Garcia said. "Let's leave it at that."
The good news? Since the Match Play, Garcia, 23, has been working
on some changes with his father, Victor, and is trying to address
the flaws in what still looks like a teenager's swing. "I used to
get the club way outside and lay it off quite a bit, and that
would make me do the big lag," Garcia says. "Now we're trying to
get a little more in line toward parallel and get the club aiming
more toward the target. I'm fine, don't worry about me."

Former Masters champ Vijay Singh won in Phoenix, then missed six
weeks with injured ribs. He came in 20th on his return at Bay
Hill, but he looked more deejay than Vijay on his home track last
week, piling up 10 bogeys and a double to miss the cut for the
second year in a row.

Retief Goosen, the quiet South African who won the 2001 U.S.
Open, challenged Woods in last year's Masters and played well
early this year with a second, a third and two fourths worldwide,
but the Goose has been cooked lately. He lost in the opening
round of the Match Play and missed the cut at the Players thanks
to a pair of disastrous double bogeys in the second round. He
also recently took some time off while his wife, Tracy, gave
birth to a son, Leo.

David Duval, recovering from a bout of vertigo, showed signs of
his old self last week, and his old sense of humor, too. "I kind
of played like I'm capable of for nine holes, then I played like
I have been for nine," he said. "A lot of people were out there.
I'm glad I didn't hit any of them." Duval totaled 81 on the front
side and 67 on the back. He finished strong, playing the final 10
holes in five under par, but he still missed the cut by four. His
swing is good, he said, but his confidence is missing on his tee
shots, formerly the strength of his game.

That leaves some recent flavors of the month as potential Masters
contenders. Players such as Mike Weir of Canada, who, same as
Love, has two wins in 2003. The difference is that Weir lacks the
length to dominate Augusta and has never finished better than
24th there. Haas has never won a major and is a little too old to
be taken seriously now, but last week he broke the $1 million
barrier in earnings for the first time. And there's Love, whose
career has featured more close calls (24 seconds)--the latest
coming in last month's Honda Classic, which he handed to Justin
Leonard--than wins (16).

"I didn't need another near miss, attaboy, way to go, hang in
there," Love said on Sunday. "I needed a good round. When I read
that I'm not a good closer or that I should do better, I don't
disagree. We always talk about playing against Tiger down the
stretch. On Sunday, I was chasing my own potential."

Where was Woods during this Love-in? Struggling with his C game.
Woods said he lost six pounds during his bout with food poisoning
the previous weekend, when he grimly won by 11 strokes at rainy
Bay Hill. That clearly took something out of him. Last week he
hit an inordinate number of bad shots. On Sunday, for instance,
he eagled the 2nd and the 16th holes but hit balls into the water
on three others--including at the infamous island--green 17th. He
shot a 72 and finished 11th. "I had it going both ways,
unfortunately," said Woods, who was either hooking or pushing the
ball all day. "Compound that with the wind. It was brutal out
there."

Chalk up a satisfying win for Love, but don't pencil him in yet
as a Tiger Rival. Almost 39 and with maybe five more good years
left, his window of opportunity may be too small against a
27-year-old Woods. Still, Love's performance last week may rank
just behind his rainbow victory at Winged Foot in the 1997 PGA as
a defining moment for him. The big question is: What comes next?

"It was only one round, but it was the best I've ever seen
anybody play," says Couples. "Davis is somebody who should win
all the time. The way he's swinging and playing right now, he's
going to have a monster year."

Pardon the skepticism, but we've heard that one before.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG PLAYERS PLAYER Love's finishing touch on his second win at Sawgrass: a flawless 64 on a day the field averaged 73.9. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (INSET) RECOVERY SHOTS Woods, still getting over his gut-check win at Bay Hill, made two birdies and two eagles on Sunday, but also had apair of double bogeys. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN SUMMER OF LOVE II Couples (right) and Love's Sunday pairingbrought back memories of 1992, their high-water mark.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)