ST. LOUIS – It is difficult to fathom that it has been 21 years since Davis Love III, the son of a PGA Professional, curled in one last putt across the green at Winged Foot Golf Club at the 1997 PGA Championship and triumphantly, almost defiantly, waved his visor through the air beneath a rainbow that everybody believed his dad had placed so perfectly.
That was Love’s best major moment, and he’s had many others, even if that '97 PGA was the lone time he left with a trophy. At the 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive this week, Love, now 54, will make his 31st PGA start, marking his 100th major start overall. One year ago at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els celebrated their 100th major. The names on that accomplishment do not compose a long list. Love is only the 14th player in history to reach the century mark.
“Another reminder that you’re getting old and have played for a long, long time,” Love, a 21-time PGA Tour winner and 2017 inductee into the World Golf Hall of Fame, said with a laugh on Tuesday. “But I’ve been blessed to play this long. When you think about it, if you play all four of them for 25 years, that’s pretty incredible, and I spread it out a little longer than that.”
The major highlight for Love arrived in 1997, in New York, at Winged Foot. He and his good pal Justin Leonard, who was coming off an Open Championship victory at Troon, had broken away from the field after three rounds – U.S. Open winners Lee Janzen and Tom Kite sat seven shots back – and slowly, Love pulled away from Leonard, too. He shot a brilliant 66, and he wanted to walk up to the last green shoulder to shoulder with Leonard. Leonard urged him to go it alone. This was his moment to savor.
Love, who’d lost his father and mentor, Davis Love Jr., in a tragic plane crash in 1988, just two years into his promising PGA Tour career, looked up to see a rainbow arched across the sky. His mom, Penta, was in the crowd at Winged Foot that day; his younger brother, Mark, was on his bag.
“It was very emotional,” Love said. His dad had been a member of the PGA’s Met Section, as had Jack Lumpkin (Davis III’s longtime teacher), and Claude Harmon, the legendary, long-ago Winged Foot club pro (and Masters champion) who the family knew well. “There were so many great stories that people don’t even know that tied the club professionals together and what it meant to my family. So yeah, it was an emotional thing for all of us.”
Asked what would rank as his next-best major moment, Love, a runner-up in two Masters as well as the 1996 U.S. Open, said without hesitation that it was last summer’s U.S. Open – and he never even hit a shot. Instead, he caddied for his son, Dru Love, who made it through local and sectional qualifying to advance to Wisconsin’s Erin Hills and the U.S. Open, playing 30 years after his dad had played in his first one.
“Caddying for my son and teeing off at 6:50 at Erin Hills Thursday morning, having (starter) Bob Ford send him off on the first hole … that might top the rainbow,” he said.
Jack Nicklaus played in the most majors, competing in 164. Love is only one of three players in this week’s field (Vijay Singh and John Daly are the others) to have played in the 1992 PGA Championship at Bellerive. He tied for 33rd. Love was on his way to the 2001 American Express Championship at the St. Louis layout when he was grounded in Tennessee because of the horrific terrorist attacks at New York's Twin Towers on September 11. He got a ride to Atlanta, borrowed one of fellow pro Billy Andrade’s cars (“I’ll get it back to you,” he assured him), and somberly drove home to Sea Island, Georgia.
If there was one of his 99 previous majors in which Love would enjoy a mulligan (or two), he said it would be the 1996 U.S. Open. He hit a poor iron shot into the 17th hole when a pipe burst loudly during his swing, and failed to get up and down for par. He then faced a downhill 20-footer for birdie at 18 to potentially force a playoff with Steve Jones. Love misread the speed, left the initial putt 3 feet short, then missed the next one. A bogey-bogey end to an otherwise good week.
“It was an unfortunate way to finish,” Love said. “And my caddie (brother Mark) and I got a bad yardage on the first hole of that championship and made a double. So if you ask my brother one swing he would like to have over, it would be a yardage, not a swing.”
Here’s hoping Davis Love III’s 100th major at Bellerive beginning on Thursday won’t be quite so heartbreaking. He said it will not be his last one. As time marches on, so, too, does he.