He's Set for a Major Return

Times Staff Writer

Nearly nine years ago, in August 1997, Davis Love III removed his name from a list he never wanted to be on. He was 33, he had just won his first major title at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot Golf Club and no longer was he the best player never to have won a major.

As far as careers go, it was a monumental moment for Love, or at least it appeared that way. His triumph at Winged Foot was regarded as a surefire breakthrough for Love, and there would be many more majors for the taking.

That has been true. There were many, just not any for him.

Since Love's major victory at Winged Foot, there have been 33 major championships won by 19 players, none of them named Love. Todd Hamilton, Rich Beem, Paul Lawrie, Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis all have the same number of major championship titles -- one -- as Love, since 1997.

Love, 42, hasn't won a tournament since 2003, when he won four and earned a career-best $6.08 million. But as Winged Foot returns to the majors scene this week as the site of the U.S. Open, Love has fond memories of his winning ways in 1997 and healthy optimism that he is still a major player on golf's biggest stage.

"I'm certainly feeling better, feeling stronger," Love said. "I've spent so much time working hard on my game that I haven't really transferred that to scoring.

"I'm making silly mistakes. I'm driving it in the middle of the fairway and making a bogey or a double bogey with a nine-iron.... That's more concern about my golf swing, concern about the ball flight, concern about distance control and not just playing the golf course and trying to make a birdie."

Love said he's working hard to iron out his problems, but the results haven't been there.

He has one top-10 finish this year, a runner-up to Geoff Ogilvy at the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa in February. In the first major of the year, at the Masters, Love tied for 22nd; he had missed the cut twice at Augusta National in the five years before that.

For a player with six top-10 finishes at the Masters, including two seconds, that's not the trend Love is interested in visiting.

Love can count 19 top-10s in the majors he has played since his first full year on the PGA Tour in 1986, a stretch that began with the 1986 PGA Championship, when he was 22.

He came out of the University of North Carolina in 1985 and went to qualifying school, then impressed his new peers on the tour with an eye-opening ability for long-distance drives. Because he was using a persimmon-headed driver -- and was one of the last to give it up in favor of a metal one -- Love was held in high regard for his driving prowess.

Love still drives it a long way, just not in relation to the real power sluggers. His 298-yard average off the tee ranks 32nd. In 1997, when Love won the PGA, his average driving distance of 284.8 ranked fourth.

More streaky than consistent with his putting, Love has nevertheless won a remarkable 18 times in what's sure to be judged worthy of a Hall of Fame career. He won the Players Championship twice, 11 years apart, the second time when he closed with a 64 in trying conditions on the last day in 2003.

This year, healthy again after battling nagging back and neck injuries, Love has earned nearly $1.26 million to put him over $33 million in his career.

His second at La Costa is his highlight, but he also missed the cut at the Bob Hope Classic and at the Players, where he followed up his opening 65 with an 83.

After the Masters, Love tied for 47th at the Verizon Heritage, tied for 14th at the Wachovia Championship, tied for 17th at Colonial and tied for 29th at the Memorial.

Coming back to Winged Foot could be a good venue once again for Love.

"I feel like I'm right on the edge," he said.

Ogilvy, who defeated Love, 3-and-2, in the final at La Costa, said he knew enough about Love to expect nothing but the best.

"Because he's Davis Love, and if he hits a bad shot, the odds go up that the next one is going to be good, because he probably hits 95 out of 100 shots good," Ogilvy said.

"Every time he hit a bad shot I was surprised more than anything."

So Love is making a comeback this week, even if it may be more geographical than anything. But then again, you never know.

Love feels as though he may have a clue.

"I haven't really felt like I've been ready to win every week, but I felt like I've been playing my usual top-10 golf when [I'm] not really on form. I'm hoping for Winged Foot to bring that focus back a little bit."

Nine years removed from taking his major step at Winged Foot, Love's focus should be sharp.

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