Davis Love III stepped triumphantly onto the 18th green at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., on Sunday with the 79th PGA Championship in hand, but the most pent-up man in golf still had a tight grip on his fragile emotions. During the best 18 holes he has ever played—a 66 that will stand as one of the greatest final rounds in a major championship—the sensitive Love had avoided looking at his playing partner and sole challenger, Justin Leonard, because he felt bad about how much he wanted to beat a friend. Now, as his dream was being fulfilled and he thought about his father, who was the most important figure in his life, he avoided the eyes of his wife, Robin; his brother and caddie, Mark; and his mother, Penta. He especially didn't want to look at the glorious rainbow that had so suddenly appeared in the sky to frame his finest hour.
But when destiny drove in Love's 12-foot birdie putt the way it often does when a man has thoroughly made a championship his, the wraps came off. He grabbed his visor and swung it sidearm so hard that his right leg kicked up in a high follow-through, a very un-Love-ly move that Arnie or Tiger would have been proud of. He then hugged Leonard, held his brother, and embraced Robin. Finally, when he saw his mother, with whom—more than anyone else—he had shared the pain of losing his father and teacher, Davis Love Jr., in a 1988 plane crash, he clutched her so hard she was lifted off her feet. "Dad knows what you've done," Penta whispered. Her son answered huskily, "I know."
Perhaps now Davis Love III has been unchained. The golfer universally admired for his pure swing and character, but considered by many peers to lack the competitive mean streak necessary to be a champion, came away from Winged Foot with his major—won in a manner that loudly proclaimed he can win many more.
"This was a big deal," said Fred Couples, the casual man who doesn't use that phrase casually. "Davis has so much talent, but he's just had to learn to get out of his own way and let his ability take over. Now that he's got this major, I think he'll just take off."
That Love broke through so spectacularly at Winged Foot lends added weight to Couples's prediction. In the four major championships played there before last week, only Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman in the 1984 U.S. Open had ever broken the 72-hole par of 280, each scoring 276. On the strength of 66s in the first, third and fourth rounds, Love shot an 11-under 269 to win by five over Leonard, the 25-year-old British Open champion. Love overwhelmed Leonard and everyone else with a blend of power and precision. He averaged 307 yards off the tee to lead the field in driving distance. (Tiger Woods at 298 yards and John Daly at 296 were the next longest.) And not only did Love hit more of Winged Foot's inordinately small greens in regulation than all but six other players, but he also kept his approaches below the hole, consistently giving himself uphill rolls that allowed him to avoid three-putting on the severely pitched and humped greens. "I've never had more control of my game or felt better under pressure," said Love.
Rain might have softened the course and effectively widened the fairways, but besides Love and Leonard, only two other players finished under par, Jeff Maggert at 276 and Lee Janzen at 279. "It was a perfect test of the highest golf," said Ernie Els, the U.S. Open champion, who was 10 over and tied for 53rd. "My game couldn't handle it this week, but I've got no complaints. Winged Foot elevates the PGA Championship."
As it elevated Love. Although he had won 10 times in his 12 years on the Tour, Love had been frustrated in the major championships. He didn't have a top 10 finish in his first 27 majors, and while he had had four since 1995, Love's best-remembered performance was his three-putt from 20 feet to bogey the 72nd hole of the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills when a par would have gotten him into a playoff. "I've had a hard time just letting myself play my game in majors," Love said on Sunday. "I finally really did it this week."
Such a performance was somewhat unexpected in a year of misfortune for Love. A kidney stone hurt his play early in the year, and he was disqualified from the Players Championship in March for signing an incorrect scorecard after an inadvertent rules violation. That cost him more than $80,000 and 20 Ryder Cup points. With no victories in recent weeks, he was in danger of slipping completely off the Ryder Cup team. He hit bottom at the British Open last month at Troon when he made a quadruple-bogey 7 on the par-3 Postage Stamp on Saturday to knock himself out of contention. "I remember wondering very seriously if I have what it takes to win a major championship," he said at Winged Foot.
After some soul searching, Love decided he did, worked hard with his swing coach, Jack Lumpkin, and with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, and came to last week's tournament as confident and relaxed as he has ever been at a major. Some pressure was relieved when he learned that Ryder Cup captain Tom Kite had told other players that if Love failed to qualify on points, he would be a captain's choice. "That freed him up," said Couples, who rented a home near Winged Foot with Love and his family. "It had been wearing on him."
Said Penta, "Davis had a peace this week that just made me think it was finally his time."