Publish date:

Playing With Pain

Davis Love III, the gentlest of men, has now endured three violent
deaths in a life that looks so serene on TV. In 1988 Love's best
friend, Jimmy Hodges, and Love's father, Davis Jr., were killed
when the prop plane they were traveling in crashed in a swamp in
Jacksonville. Last month Jeff Knight, Love's brother-in-law and
the man paid to keep Love on schedule, apparently committed
suicide, shooting himself in the head in his hunting cabin in
rural Georgia. Love, who knows the backwoods and streams of the
Peach State nearly as well as Knight did, found the body.

To Love it is almost incidental that Knight, who was 37, was
being investigated by the FBI for allegedly stealing about $1
million from Love's bank accounts. Knight was thought to be
putting the money toward his cabin and, one expects, the
accoutrements of the hunting life--the guns and knives and
acreage and trucks, the very things for which Love himself spends
so freely. In the days after the discovery Love was still
referring to Knight as a friend, even if Knight had failed him.
Love said that his own family of four had just expanded and would
now include Knight's two children and his widow, Karen, who is
the sister of Love's wife, Robin.

The tragedy came as Love's finest professional season was
unfolding. He's won three sparkly events already this year and
was putting, at age 39, as if he might win three more, maybe even
this week's U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. Now, who knows? I got to
know Love while helping him with his memoir of his father and
consider him a friend. I've never known an athlete more aware of
his emotional life. You can't see it on TV, when he is shrouded
in Polo, but the tender chords of life, where confidence and
stress and worry and joy converge, play all over Davis. The death
of Love's father--for whom, in some ways, he played--derailed
Love's game for several years and continues to hurt him and
trouble him. Why didn't Dad drive from Sea Island to Jacksonville
instead of flying in that lousy weather? The life and death of
Knight will play out in Love's mind forever too. Last week,
playing for the first time since Knight's death, Love tied for
seventh at the FBR Capital Open outside Washington, D.C.

At least Love didn't play golf for Knight, an innately kind and
thoughtful man who served in the first gulf war. Knight used sir
and ma'am as a matter of course. He was also chronically obese,
but if he suffered from low self-esteem, you wouldn't know it. He
had little interest in golf and did not try to trade on Love's
fame. When he made the cross-state trip to the Masters, it wasn't
to hang out in the Augusta National clubhouse eating peach
cobbler; it was to run the Love family barbecue, of which he was
the king. For the past six years, as Love's business and social
life became more complicated, Knight made the phone calls Love
was too busy to make, got him to sign things, made sure he got
where he needed to go. Knight made the planes run on time. If
Love pulled out of a tournament because of his ailing back, it
would not occur to him to call his caddie. Love's father used to
say that Davis could smash his driver so well because his mind is
clear, that he's able to see the big picture and isn't distracted
with small worries. If the car is a quart low on oil, Davis
doesn't care. The details of life, for whatever reason, don't
occur to him. Knight would remember to call the caddie.

Knight was deeply fond of Love, and if he stole from his
brother-in-law, it was likely because he had convinced himself
that a life in the woods with no money worries--the life Love has
because of his skill at a game--was somehow his birthright. The
last gun he ever handled, it would seem, was used to settle his
debt with Love. It will be painful for Davis to live with that
notion. Because of his Roman numeral, his clothing, his gentle
manner, his wealth, his home on a resort island, the public
thinks of Love as a country clubber. In truth he's an
outdoorsman, with the money and time to explore the outdoors in
enviable ways. Envy, they say, is one of the seven deadly sins.

COLOR PHOTO: PAT BENIC OPEN QUESTION Can Love, who tied for seventh in D.C., put aside Knight's suicide?

In the days after the discovery Love was still referring to
Knight as a friend, even if Knight had failed him.