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Love 40

In early February I had lunch at Sea Island, Georgia, with Davis Love III's mom, Penta, and his brother, Mark. The conversation at times was like a parlor game called "What makes Davis tick." Penta, a trim, charming woman, laughed as we began: "I've been trying to put my finger on this for forty years." The first word she suggested for Love's key character trait was stubborn. "Even as a boy he always insisted on doing exactly what he wanted, and you couldn't make him budge," she said. Mark didn't disagree, but said it didn't quite go far enough. He thought a better word was confrontational. Penta reached out excitedly to tap her youngest son on the arm. "Yes, Mark, that's exactly it," she said. Mark mentioned a couple of run-ins with fans Love has had over the years—a heckler at Bay Hill in 1998, a man at the 1997 U.S. Open who was abusing Colin Montgomerie—and the two shared a glance that I suspected acknowledged similar family incidents. Mark, who still caddies for his brother on occasion, added that part of his value to Love on the course is as a mediator.

This assessment was a surprise to me, since Love usually comes across at tournaments as among the most mild-mannered and even-tempered of players. In fact, that's probably the most frequent knock on him, that he lacks passion, that Love somehow doesn't want it enough to gut out clutch wins in big tournaments. But a few weeks after the lunch, Love proved Penta and Mark's point at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. On the twenty-third hole of his thirty-six-hole final-round showdown against Tiger Woods, Love went to the ropes. "Are you saying 'No Love'?Are you the one saying it?Who's saying it?" he barked into the gallery, and he refused to play on until the heckler, wearing a Tiger Woods cap, was identified and ejected by security.

The incident reigned as topic A in golf for almost a week. Many commentators applauded the way Love handled the situation, but the bulk of opinions on call-in sports talk shows picked up on the suggestion that Love was a "nerd" and out of step with the times. Love's remarks to the press after the match (which he lost) did not help much in heading off this particular line of criticism. "I don't think it's just golf, I think it's our whole society," he opined. "They don't respect what other people do, don't respect their elders, don't respect other people's space, don't respect traditions or etiquette or customs." He even bemoaned how men don't hold doors open for ladies the way they are supposed to.

But his mother and brother were the ones who probably came closest to the truth. Love went after the fan because deep down there's a lot more voltage kicking around inside him than most people understand. As for Love's post-facto justification that he was somehow defending the integrity of civilization, no doubt he was sincere—Sea Island, where he grew up as a golfer and still lives, is a conservative place steeped in traditional values—but it wasn't the whole story. Spend any time with Love and you quickly realize that he has no interest whatsoever in being a personality, in being out front or in the fore in any public way. The defense-of-society argument must have been at least in part a handy way for him to change the discussion to something besides himself. The main thing Love really wants these days, in the nicest possible way, is to be left alone—so that he can daydream undisturbed and recharge and channel all that voltage into winning tournaments. He had his best year ever in 2003, with four official wins, including his second Players Championship, and this year, having just turned forty, he wants to do even better, to secure his legacy in golf. That's what he truly cares about.

"Isn't it incredible?" Love asks rhetorically, spreading his arms to encompass the view of the relatively new Sea Island Golf Learning Center. For a golfer, it is a kind of paradise, one of the most scenic practice facilities in the country, with putting greens and range targets and chipping areas nestled hard against the Atlantic on one side and panoramic marshland on the other. "I walk out here and there's Jack Lumpkin," he marvels, referring to his longtime instructor, "and there's Mike Shannon"—Sea Island's new putting teacher—"and there's [Tour pro] Jonathan Byrd on the other end of the range."

Love is never more at peace than when he's at home at Sea Island, and it shows in his demeanor. Standing in the learning-center lobby a little while later waiting for his ten-year-old son, Davis Love IV, whom they call "Dru," to finish a putting game with a friend in the teaching studio, Love jokes around with a man and his teenage son who are visiting from Michigan. The TV is tuned to the FBR Open, formerly the Phoenix Open, with its famously whooping, out-of-control galleries, and Love says, "Gee, what a shame my schedule didn't allow me to play there this week." Love's posture, as always, is super-erect. Penta says he picked this up from her dad, a strict, hardworking farmer and father of twelve from North Carolina. In person it seems more natural and less uptight than it does on TV, but also more intimidating. Love is tall, at six-foot-three, and he doesn't apologize for his height; you don't confuse his politeness with his being a pushover. Yet in the eyes there's a humorous alertness, and at the corners of his mouth a warmth that makes the father and son from Michigan feel comfortable.

Visitors come to Sea Island from all over, but the dominant ethos of the place is Old South—not the kitschy Old South of hoopskirts and moonlight-and-magnolia nostalgia (Sea Island is sleekly up to date; guest rooms at the Lodge have high-speed Internet connections), but rather a reverence for down-home, flag-waving values and generations of families honoring the past. The cover of this spring's resort newsletter, for example, depicts an absurdly cute toddler hunting Easter eggs attired in the type of big-buttoned sailor suit that well-turned-out children on the island surely wore fifty years ago. Both Sea Island proper, the main resort, and neighboring St. Simons Island, where Love actually lives and where the golf courses are located, are reachable only by causeway, which lends the entire community an air of detachment from the messiness of modern life. Many people who visit Sea Island own or rent houses there rather than stay in one of the 210 guest rooms available at the Cloister and its oceanfront annexes. (Another forty-two luxury rooms are available at the Sea Island Lodge at the golf courses.) The community was developed seventy-five years ago, and the Sea Island Company is still entirely owned by the Jones family, whose current head, Bill Jones III, just happens to be Davis Love III's neighbor and best friend.

The Love family moved to Sea Island when Davis was thirteen and Mark was eleven. Their father, Davis Love Jr., had been the head pro at Atlanta Country Club but was attracted to Sea Island by the Jones family's vision to upgrade the resort's already well-known golf facilities to world-class status, and by the opportunity to teach more. He and Penta had honeymooned at Sea Island and visited often, so the decision to move was a no-brainer.

The Love boys were already proficient golfers, inspired in part by watching their dad play in occasional PGA Tour events (his best finish was a tenth-place tie at the 1970 Green Island Open Invitational), but the move to Sea Island sparked a new resolve in Trip, as the family called Davis III. At thirteen, the age of confirmations and bar mitzvahs, he told his dad he wanted to quit all other sports and devote himself exclusively to golf. For the next nine years, Trip and his dad were practically inseparable.

Love Jr.'s style of teaching was hardly didactic. "Davis liked to come across to his students as being less smart than he really was," says Lumpkin. "He liked to say things like, 'Gee, I wonder what would happen if you tried such and such,' as if he were just curious. In fact, he knew what would happen, but he also knew his students would learn better if they had the sense of figuring it out for themselves." With Davis and Mark, Lumpkin says, Love Jr. was endlessly inventive with drills and metaphors for conveying the essence of what needed to happen in the swing, but the only things he absolutely insisted on were gentlemanly conduct on the course and that the boys enjoy themselves.

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