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Troubled Water
Michael Bamberger
April 26, 1999
Davis Love came to Harbour Town on his 53-footer, seeking a post-Masters refuge, but his week again came to a stormy end
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April 26, 1999

Troubled Water

Davis Love came to Harbour Town on his 53-footer, seeking a post-Masters refuge, but his week again came to a stormy end

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For Davis Love III, a long night was about to begin. The Masters had just ended and he was again the runner-up, for the second time in five years. The first time, in 1995 when Ben Crenshaw won days after the death of Harvey Penick, felt almost good. This one did not. The evening air was humid and moist and still, more like midsummer than mid-April. Love sat on a bench on the front porch of Augusta National Golf Club, beside the entrance to the barbershop. His back ached. Dru, his five-year-old son, was swinging a two-iron longer than he is tall, taking tiny divots out of the club's front lawn. With half interest the father told his son to quit doing that, quit doing that now. He said out loud, "Where's Robin? Where is your mother?" Robin Love was a few miles away, packing up their hotel room. The Loves had been hoping to spend Sunday night in Augusta. The winner of the tournament typically stays over an extra night.

The club was surprisingly sleepy. Just a few hours earlier it had been shaking with roars. Now almost everybody was gone. A few members, some with their wives, strolled past Love, headed to the members' Sunday-night dinner to honor the new champion. Some of them briefly visited with Love, but there wasn't much to say. José María Olazábal drove by in a golf cart wearing his green coat. He didn't see the runner-up in the darkness, but the runner-up saw him. "It was surreal," Love would say later. "I felt like I should be going to that dinner." He had finished two shots back.

Robin finally pulled up in the family Suburban, and the father and son climbed in to begin the four-hour drive home, across the hills of Georgia and into the Low Country, to Sea Island. The golfer and his wife spoke about this and that, of home stuff in low voices, the music barely on, so that their son could fall asleep. Before too long the conversation turned to the tournament.

"I can't believe I hit that shot," Love said at one point. He was talking about his tee shot on the par-5 15th in the third round. He mishit his drive and had to lay up. He didn't know he was playing his third shot off an old divot, a sandy spot, until he hit it. The shot finished in the water, and Love made a 7 on a hole where he expects to have an eagle putt. He was mad because he hit his drive when he wasn't prepared. There was some noise among the spectators near the tee, and Love wanted to back off and start again but for some reason did not. His goal is to be fully committed to every shot he takes. That's what he's been talking about with his sports psychologist, Bob Rotella, for 13 years. One subject for 13 years. On the 15th tee in the third round he played a shot to which he was not fully committed. In that one moment, he had failed his game plan. Damn!

Twenty hours later Davis and Robin were in their 53-foot boat, the LexSea, named for their 10-year-old daughter, Lexie. They were heading into the harbor at Harbour Town, on Hilton Head Island, S.C., for the MCI Classic, the tournament that always follows the Masters. Davis calls the LexSea his fishing boat, but it's more of a floating house than anything else, which is why the Loves stay on it during the week of the tournament. As they approached the harbor, Love saw the Aussie Rules, Greg Norman's 142-foot boat. Norman was having a refreshment with two of the important people in his life, his wife, Laura, and his caddie, Tony Navarro. Davis waved and said to nobody in particular, "I wonder what they're talking about." He had a pretty good idea.

For the 49 golfers who made the trip from Augusta to Hilton Head—including Love, Norman and Tiger Woods—the MCI Classic was a chance to recuperate from the Masters. Only Olazábal left Augusta really happy, and probably nobody left more dissatisfied than Love. He came to Hilton Head with a considerable agenda: to get ahead of Woods in the World Ranking, to win the MCI for a record fifth time, to relax. More than anything, he needed to get the Masters behind him. The Harbour Town Golf Links by day, the LexSea at night, these would be his tonics. At least, that's what he was hoping.

Golfers are wistful, pro golfers especially so. Television shows the skills of the best golfers playing shots only they can play. The little pitch Love had holed on 16 on Masters Sunday—he played beyond the hole in order to get his ball in it—was a shot that few in the world could have pulled off in that setting. Our society rewards that skill. In the case of Love it has brought a big house, a big boat and a little jet, which he leases. In the case of Norman it has brought a gargantuan house, a gargantuan boat and a gargantuan plane, which he owns. The top pros lead rich and public lives. They hide their private sorrows from the on-course cameras. Out at sea, they are safe. They can talk about the ones that got away.

On Tuesday, April 13, Love celebrated his 35th birthday by having dinner with his wife and some friends. The next day he played in the MCI pro-am with Jim Hodges, the governor of South Carolina, and Lou Holtz, South Carolina's new football coach. Last Thursday he opened the tournament with a 68 that could have been a 64 if he had made his share of 16-footers. He has been knocking down flagsticks all year. He has had four straight chances to win—at Bay Hill, in the Players Championship, in the BellSouth in Atlanta and at Augusta—in four straight weeks. He began last week No. 2 on the 1999 money list without having won a tournament and No. 3 on the World Ranking. A win on Hilton Head would have inched him toward David Duval in earnings and past Woods on the ranking. But Love played late on Friday, in a cool wind, waiting on many tees, and he played poorly. His back was acting up. When he marked his ball on the 18th green, he threw it overhand, hard, to his brother and caddie, Mark. He bogeyed the last hole for a 75 and made the cut on the button. As he made the 400-yard walk from the clubhouse to Slip 51, where the LexSea was tied up, the people he passed called out words of encouragement and more than one man, borrowing words a master might say to his dog, said, "Go get 'em, Davis." Love's head was somewhere else.

To a degree, the holiday mood of the fans at Harbour Town infects the tournament. A golfer can only be so relaxed in any event, but playing the MCI Classic has never been confused with playing the Masters. "Augusta puts you on edge," Love says. "There are so many rules there. 'Be off the course Monday at six.' There are so many things to worry about. 'Does everybody in your family have a badge so they can get in?' Hilton Head is like the anti-Augusta."

Hilton Head is like Sea Island, the resort where Love has lived since 1978, when he moved there from Atlanta as a 14-year-old with his brother and mother and teaching-pro father, Davis Love Jr. Sea Island and Hilton Head are both flat and mellow and quiet, and Love's comfort level is high at both. It was at Hilton Head that Love got the first of his 13 Tour wins and the only one while his father was alive. That was in April 1987. After the victory Davis received a letter from his father in which he wrote, "Your golf shots showed me that there will be more wins, that you wanted to hit those shots under pressure, that you liked being in the hunt. Some don't. You belong there. My hat is off to your courage—and to your composure." Nineteen months later Love's father was dead, killed in a plane crash. Davis's best friend, Jimmy Hodges, and teaching pro John Popa were killed in that crash, too. Since then, Love has won at Harbour Town three more times, in 1991, '92 and '98.

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