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The Power of Love

The longest hitter in golf is Davis Love III, who hopes his prodigious swing will one day make him a big winner

The weak chin and furrowed brow are those of a cautious worrier, and the gait has a trace of galumph. If it weren't for the country-club duds and the Roman numerals at the end of his name, you might figure him for a Hush Puppies kind of guy. But if your private pantheon of biomechanical excellence includes Jordan jamming, Elway throwing downfield, Mattingly going deep and Tyson finishing, then it should also contain Davis Love III driving.

Love is the longest hitter ever to play on the PGA Tour. How long? Even Herman Mitchell, the 300-plus-pound caddie who often carries Love's bag, looks as if he could be swayed by the turbulence from the North Carolinian's immense swing. No one who has ever played golf at its highest level—not George Bayer, not Jim Dent, not even the young Jack Nicklaus—has been able to bully his way around a golf course the way Love can.

"Yeah, he is awesome," says Greg Norman. "I remember I hit a pretty good one at Muirfield last year, then sat back and watched Davis fly me by 40 yards. What else can you say? The kid's got it."

Of course, even the world's greatest players are susceptible to embellishment when it comes to long-drive stories. But as a PGA Tour rookie last year, Love had the statistics to back his up. He led the Tour in average driving distance at a record 285.7 yards, nearly two yards farther than second-place Greg Twiggs and about 25 more than the Tour average. What makes the figure otherworldly is that Love hits a one-iron off the tee more than he does a driver. His one-iron travels about 260 yards with roll. Love estimates that he averages about 300 with a driver. "A good one can go pretty far," he allows.

And Mother Teresa is pretty helpful. Love had the tour's longest measured drive of 1986 with a blast of 389 yards at the Hawaiian Open. He hit several others more than 350 yards. He carried Spyglass Hill's never-before-reached-in-two 600-yard 1st hole with a driver and a two-iron. Feeling a brisk wind behind him on the tee of the 538-yard 18th hole at Glen Abbey during the Canadian Open, Love pulled out a three-wood to make sure he wouldn't reach a water hazard 380 yards away. He then smashed the longest layup ever recorded. The ball ended up about 30 yards short of the water and a wedge from the green. Love's drives found the fairway only 57% of the time last year, but the figure would have been better if he hadn't driven into some greenside traps on par 4s.

"There's no question," says Joey Sindelar, who has the longest driving average on the Tour this decade, "that the course Davis plays is a lot different than the one the rest of us play. The statistics don't show it, but Davis is at least 10 yards longer than anyone else out here."

So how does a scrawny, 6'3", 175-pound kid with a bookkeeper's demeanor make gravity fight for its life? First, he is flexible. At the top of his swing, his 35-inch-inseam left arm and shoulder connect like a ball and socket unencumbered by muscles and tendons. Love is "golf strong," even though the only things on him that ripple are his shirt sleeves on a windy day. Since age nine, when he told his father, the respected instructor and former touring pro Davis Love Jr., that he wanted to play golf for a living, Davis III has hit thousands of balls holding the club with only his left hand.

"It's mostly the pulling action from my left arm that can make the club go so fast," he says. Love also has the mind-set that goes with being a long hitter. His temperament is outwardly controlled and colorless, but it hides a considerable boldness. "I'm real aggressive inside," he says. "I feel I have control of everything on a golf course. I'm well suited to a big swing."

In fact, the sheer size of Love's swing is the biggest reason he hits the ball so far. On the practice tee, Love's swing stands out like a windmill among a bunch of electric fans—it's wider and taller than anyone else's. Love's club head goes faster for much the same reasons a rock on the end of a long string will travel faster than one on the end of a shorter string. Without grunting and groaning, he produces the same kind of long-limbed power that marks Carl Lewis in full stride.

"It's a swing that is powerful and pretty at the same time," says the noted aesthete Ben Crenshaw. "Davis is sort of testing the outer limits. How big an arc can you have? How fast can you swing? It's fun to watch him."

Dr. Ralph Mann, a former Olympic hurdler with a doctorate in biomechanics, considers Davis's swing a scientific marvel. Working out of his laboratory at the Jack Nicklaus Academy of Golf, in Orlando, Fla., Mann has filmed, videotaped and computerized the swings of 55 touring pros to create a moving stick-figure model that is the closest thing in software to the perfect golf swing. Mann's model, which he can adjust to fit anyone's dimensions, is programmed to make movements that are more conducive to producing accurate shots than ones that simply travel a long way. Not surprisingly, the player who most closely matches the model is Nicklaus. Says Mann, "If distance were the ideal, Davis would probably be the model."

Love starts his swing with a stance that is slightly wider than the model's. The wider stance gives him a base that will better withstand the stress from the speed he will generate. On the back-swing, Love employs a dramatically full turn. His left arm remains completely extended all the way to the top, with relatively little wrist cock. His arc is by far the widest Mann has ever recorded.

Now the fun begins. Love kicks into his forward swing by rotating his hips and shoulders with tremendous speed toward the target, his arms lagging behind. All accomplished players negotiate this move, sometimes referred to as "loading" the club, but no Tour pro harnesses as much power as Love. By pulling hard with his arms, Love actually increases his wrist cock as he starts down, achieving a "downcock" as dramatic as any player's since Ben Hogan.

To unleash the club head, Love must apply a braking action to the rotation of his hips. Love's talent and training take over here. If the hips slow too soon, the shoulders will overrotate, "come over the ball," and cause the shot to go left. If the brakes are applied too late, the hands will be "blocked out," and the ball will go right. All this is happening in milliseconds, and even a slight mistake in timing can send a Love drive two fairways over.

"The human body isn't built to handle the kind of speed Davis generates," says Mann. It's Love's gift that he can. When he cracks the whip just right, the club head of his driver is traveling at 125 miles per hour at impact, more than 10 miles per hour faster than any swing Mann has measured. Under normal conditions, and with a square hit, such club head speed will launch a 300-yard drive.

The question all this raises, of course, is, "So what?" The woods, as they say, are full of long hitters. Love can hit the ball into next week, but that's often not good enough to take him to the end of the one he's playing in. Last year he missed the cut nine times in 31 official starts. Despite all of the second-shot wedges he hit on par 4s, Love barely averaged hitting 11 greens a round in regulation. "That's embarrassingly terrible," he says. With a short game still too underdeveloped to bail him out consistently, Love did well to end up 77th on the 1986 money list, with $113,245. But he did finish second to Brian Claar in the balloting for Rookie of the Year. Love has won $30,814 and has made six cuts in eight starts this year. He tied for 10th in last week's Bay Hill Classic.

Love thinks that his whole game needs work, and as it improves, his length will become his greatest strength. "First of all," he says, "my length is an advantage on the golf course. Second, it can help me financially. Third, it can ruin my career if I don't think about it right."

Love gives every indication that he thinks about it right. On the 14 driving holes on a regulation course. Love rarely pulls out his driver more than five times. He will most often choose the one-iron, reasoning that once he is in the fairway on a hole, his length will still allow him to hit a more lofted club to the green than most other players, even if they used a driver off the tee.

When Love shuns his driver he often hears groans from galleries who want him to try to bomb the course into submission. "A noisy crowd is the best thing for me," he says. "When they start saying, 'Kill it,' that's when I remember to put a nice easy swing on it." This year Love is working on shortening his back-swing and minimizing the play in his wrists at the beginning of his forward swing. He estimates the change will cost him about eight yards in distance with his driver, but it might save him as much as a stroke off of last year's mediocre 72.25-shots-per-round scoring average. "I'll still be able to do all the damage I need to do," he says.

B.F. Skinner couldn't have improved upon the golfing environment Love grew up in. Dubbed "Trip" as an infant. Love learned how to crawl on a living room floor that was strewn with his father's putters, wedges and dog-eared books on golf instruction. Love was hitting golf balls at 18 months of age when the family left Charlotte for Atlanta, and a home behind the 2nd green at the Atlanta Country Club. By the time he was five, he had a cut-down set of junior clubs that fit just right into one of those wastebaskets made to resemble a golf bag. During his frequent excursions to tournaments and clinics with his father, young Davis got his hair tousled by the likes of Sam Snead and Paul Runyan. As an eighth-grader, he would open his textbook in class like the other students, but his often had a golf book hidden inside it.

With golf all around him. Davis never rebelled. That alone is enough to reaffirm his father's reputation as a master instructor. "I tried to let Davis have fun when he was small," says Love Jr. "He got serious by his own choice, and once he did. I didn't have enough information to fill him up."

Love Jr. taught his son an upright swing and no-compromise mechanics that were difficult to master but have paid off with time. Even though Love was a three-time All-America at North Carolina and won the 1984 North and South Amateur, his game hadn't developed enough to put him in a class with Scott Verplank when they were amateurs together. Now that they're professionals. Love is enjoying the greater success.

Dad also passed along a firsthand account of the game's lore, and today the fruits of this education come out at the oddest times. Fellow pro Mike Hulbert remembers that when he was traveling with Love last year. Love wondered what he was going to do about a sackful of dirty clothes. "All of a sudden," says Hulbert. "he's in the shower putting on one pair of underwear, wearing it a while, then putting on another one. He says, 'Look Hub. Just like Paul Runyan used to do when he ran low.' "

"The more you learn about the game, the more you enjoy it and the more you understand it," says Love. "I think that's a big reason Ben Crenshaw came back the way he did, why Jack Nicklaus has been so great. A lot of guys might win a tournament and then fade away. They've just grown up playing a lot of golf, but they don't really know anything about the game." No wonder Love is known as Tour Daddy among the junior players at the Sea Island Golf Club on St. Simons Island, Ga., where he lives in a new condominium with Robin, his wife of four months.

As devoted as Love is to golf, his favorite mementos are a jersey and a pair of high tops that basketball star Michael Jordan wore while he was at North Carolina. Jordan became an avid golfer after playing several rounds with Love at Chapel Hill. "If I could be Michael Jordan. I would," says Love. "The last time I saw him, he told me, 'Davis, I'm going to buy myself a golf course, and in five years I'm going to be on the Tour.' "

Some would say that Love has the potential to go as far in his sport as Jordan has gone in his. The vital unknown is whether Love can learn to win. Last year he had or shared the lead in the last rounds of the Buick Open and the Kapalua Invitational, but failed to seize either moment. "Davis has about everything you could want," says Sindelar, who has won twice in three years. "But as well as he hits the ball, it's the guy who chips one in when you've counted him out who wins the tournaments. That kind of thing is in a guy's heart, and you just don't know what he has."

Mitchell, who has been Lee Trevino's caddie for years, thinks Love has got it. "I've always been a freak for the big ball," he says, "and Davis can leave all the people behind. But it's his head that makes him special. There's just something about him. I've seen it before. With Jack, you could see he was going to be the man. A few others. I just got a strong feeling Davis is going to be a champion."

Love isn't ready to go that far, but he's not beyond using Nicklaus as a reference point. "People forget how long Nicklaus could hit it 20 or 25 years ago, because he was winning all the tournaments," says Love. "I guess that's what I would like to do. Make them forget."



St. Simons Island is home to Davis and Robin, who enjoy a stroll between tournaments.