Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not easily provoked, except when some knuckleheads are 10 feet behind him and Love is standing over a chip shot uglier than beef tongue on toast and there's $324,000 and The Players Championship and a 10-year PGA Tour exemption and maybe a bit of his own father's memory on the line, and the knuckleheads are saying things to each other like, "Bet he doesn't get it up and down from here."
"No way. Impossible."
"Give you 3-to-1 odds."
"Make it 5-to-1."
"You got a bet."
Well, that's too much for a man to take, isn't it? I mean, weren't things hard enough for Davis Love III at last week's TPC, anyway? The whole year had been kind of a hangnail, hadn't it? Here he had been playing his grooves off, finishing in the top eight five times, scoring like crazy, tranquilizing his steroid driver, and yet all anybody wanted to talk about was Fred Couples this and Fred Couples that. O.K., O.K., so Couples had been hotter than Naugahyde seats in a Bonneville convertible parked too long at the Texas State Fair. In the four weeks leading up to the TPC, Couples had won twice and finished second twice, once in a playoff. Since the U.S. Open last June, he had won four times, helped the U.S. win the Ryder Cup, come in second twice and third four times, and been just about the best thing to happen to golf since cold beer.
Two weeks ago, he won the Nestlè Invitational at treacherous Bay Hill by nine tiny, little shots. Not since Tom Watson went ballistic and won six tournaments in 1980 have Tour locker rooms shivered at the mere sight of somebody. Last week, when Couples arrived at the world's only sodded torture chamber, known as the TPC at Sawgrass, Mark O'Meara gave him the full swami treatment, bowing deeply and slowly and saying, "Ah, Fred Couples. You only beat me by 18 shots last week."
But not this week, though he did beat Bob Tway by 20 shots—in one round. After going 73-71 and barely making the cut, Couples went out Saturday and shot a course-record 63—Tway shot 83—which included a 102-yard slam dunk into the cup for an eagle on the 9th hole. White men can't jump, but some of them can really chip.
Of course, all that was Saturday and now this was Sunday, and a flu-ridden Couples was fading into the railroad ties and alligators on his way to a 74. But Love, who had started the day three shots off the lead, was still hanging in there, chasing The Metronome, Nick Faldo, the most unblinking golfer going. Now, with Faldo leading by just one shot and playing the hole behind him, Love had this chip at the 8th. And that is when those knuckleheads started gambling on Love's choke-ability, not four club lengths from the potential choker himself.
Love doth not behaveth unseemly and Love endureth all things, but didn't they know what was going on down here? If the TPC is supposed to be the fifth major—and Love was raised by his father, the former touring pro and teacher Davis Love Jr., to win majors—then this tournament had to be his. His whole family needed this win. He was playing so close to home in Sea Island, Ga., for one thing—not an hour's drive. For another, Davis's younger brother, Mark, was caddying for him, and not everybody was sure that was a great idea. Like Davis, Mark is a former University of North Carolina player who was taught by their dad. "I felt like I needed a friend and a teacher," said Davis, who took on Mark as his full-time caddie at the Phoenix Open in January. But Davis had done well with his old caddie. It was a risk. Their mother, Penta, was walking with them too, alongside Davis's wife, Robin, and their three-year-old daughter, Alexia, and everybody knew whom they were all thinking about. "I think about him all the time," Davis said.
His father never pushed him. "If you want to be a great player, I'll teach you the things you need to do to become great," Davis Jr. told Davis III when the son was 10. "But if you just want to enjoy the game like everybody else, I'll teach you that, too." Davis III chose great, and when he would slack off and not practice and hit the remote instead of the range, his dad would tap him on the shoulder. "You remember how you told me you wanted to be a great player?" he would say. "Well, you're not doing it. I'm just reminding you."
By 1986, Davis III had made the Tour. The next year he won his first tournament. But in '88 a private plane bearing his father and two other teaching pros crashed in the fog near the Jacksonville Airport, not 40 miles from where the family stood now. Davis Jr. was killed.
It took Love three more years on the Tour to win again—at The International in Castle Rock, Colo., in August 1990—and he had never won a major, he had never become "a great player," as he had begged his father to make him, and that took its toll. Tom Kite, a family friend, asked Love the other day why he doesn't smile more, but who can smile when there's so much work left to do, so much undone? "I'm not like that," Love says. "I hit a four-iron in to 10 feet and everybody claps, and I'm mad because it's not in to two feet. I told Tom, 'Let me win some big tournaments, and then I'll smile.' "
So you can imagine how tense things were at the 8th hole Sunday when the knuckleheads started stirring the stress soup. "Those guys made me mad," Love said later. "I just said to myself, I'm going to chip this in and show these guys." Naturally, that's exactly what he did. The ball cozied up to the hole and hid itself six inches deep in sweet Mother Earth. Love did not smile. He snapped his neck toward the gamblers and yelled, "I hope all y'all lost on that bet." Probably so. They didn't bet anything on just getting the thing down, did they?
From that moment on, Love said, "I knew it was my day." And it was. The seas parted. Faldo the Unbogeyable bogeyed the 9th to give Love one shot's worth of elbow room. Then Mark talked Davis into playing his putt on the 10th straighter than Davis wanted to. "Mark is his dad's eyes now," said Penta. Davis decided to trust those eyes, and damned if they weren't right. Plunk for a birdie.
He still had a one-shot lead when he stepped up to the par-4 14th and almost blew it. He aped a pitching wedge about 150 yards, over the green, leaving him with a chip shot nobody would bet on—off a mud lie, over a bunker, with the pin placed 20 feet from the edge of the green. Twenty-to-1 nobody takes. But Love hit that chip perfectly, too, and nearly holed it. Par was saved. At the par-5 16th, he chipped to within an inch of the cup for a birdie that gave him a two-stroke lead. Ironic, a man known for length was doing it with the short stuff.
And so it was that Love took that two-stroke lead to Other Island, also known in some parts as the par-3, island-green 17th hole. You know how the TV people always put up the chart showing how players have handled a hole over the course of a tournament? Listed are the numbers of eagles, birdies, pars, bogeys and "other" scores made there. Well, the 17th is an "other" kind of place. Joey Sindelar made a nice other there Sunday—a 7. An other will ruin your day real fast, not to mention your dreams.
"I think that's about as nervous as either of us has ever been in golf," said Mark.
Said Davis, "I was standing there thinking, I've got Nick Faldo behind me and Freddy in front of me [the top two players in the world], and all I've got to do is keep the ball out of the water to beat 'em."
And so he hit it, and as it sailed, Davis admitted later, "I was pretty scared." But golf balls are not stupid. They know whose day is whose. Love's ball flew politely over the water, over the railroad ties, over the guarding bunker and rolled to within five feet of the stick. The putt was as good as gold and so was the $324,000 first-place check and the best parking spot in the lot for a year and the sweet achievement.
And then, about the time they handed him the crystal, Love did something nobody had seen him do all week. He smiled, thus proving that now and again. Love does conquer all.
Though long off the tee, Love found victory was in the chips.
A course-record 63 put Couples on the brink of another win, but the flu doused his hopes.