This game plan is only slightly different from the one that Love and his advisors drew up before the 2003 season began. (The tradition of writing out goals each year is one that Love began with his father.) "I'd got in a kind of lull for a few years before last season, and it was making me mad," Love says. "I was a little bit complacent and a little bit hurt and a little bit lacking interest maybe, and a little bit—lazy is not the word, but a little bit blah, you know?And here I was about to turn thirty-eight, which is supposed to be the prime of your career. Sometimes it takes something like that to get you cranked up."
One commitment he made was to work harder on "the little things." "It's like a football player who catches the touchdown pass," he says. (Love is extremely gifted at changing the ostensible subject to other people while actually continuing to talk about himself.) "That's the fun moment everyone sees. But the hard part is Monday morning, with the arm in the ice bucket and the weight room and the wind sprints." For Love, the little things that he formerly resisted doing include stretching fully every time before going out to the course or the range, working daily on his putting stroke using training devices, hours of dedicated short-game work and playing more on the golf course instead of just hitting balls. Before the Match Play tournament in February, for instance, he played full eighteen-hole practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, even though he knew he would be exhausted by the end of the week if he made it through to the final round (which he did). "In years past I probably just would have hit balls, or gone over to [the test facility at] Titleist to experiment with the new equipment. That's what I really wanted to do," he says.
The main tweak to the game plan for 2004 is trying to feel less pressure at the majors. "We're still going to focus on the majors, but maybe not be as anxious about them. Instead of thinking of them as high points, think of them more as just points to be aware of," he says. It's an optimistic goal, because Love cannot disguise how much he wants to win more majors: "One thing about being forty is that I can see the end now. When you're twenty-five or twenty and just getting started, you don't know where you're going. But I know where I'm going now—I'm going away." He laughs. "I mean, things happen. Your back goes out, you lose your putting, your desire leaves you, whatever. Johnny Miller, Jerry Pate, those guys were the best in the game, and something happened, and they couldn't do it anymore. I don't know the exact year or how it will happen, but I know there will come a point when I just can't beat those crazy kids anymore. And I'm prepared for it, because there are a lot of things I like to do. I like to hunt, I like to fish, I like to spend time with my family, I like to build golf courses. So that gives me a little peace of mind. And I feel secure about my place in golf. They throw my name around for things like Ryder Cup captain and the Hall of Fame. But for now my attitude is, 'Let's just see how much more I can get out of this, for as long as I can, and enjoy the prime of my career, because I understand how hard it was to get here, and how it might not last."
Love says he could live without winning another major (he won the PGA in 1997), but he would obviously prefer not to. "As long as I can keep hitting the ball as far as I do now, and not lose 20 or 30 percent over the next five years," he says, "I'm still going to be competitive in big tournaments like the Masters." The biggest advantage he has now is experience, he says, more than just about any top competitor in the game. "Dru and I were talking about winning tournaments the other day—he's getting real interested in that now—and I told him, 'Dru, I'm going to win the Masters one of the next few years so we can go there as long as we want and watch the tournament together and play there, because we'll be members.' [Masters winners become honorary members of Augusta National.] And Dru said, 'Why not this year?' And I said, 'Well, one of these years, but it doesn't have to be this year.'" Love pauses for a beat. "Now, I'm sure that's a mind game, so that I don't put too much pressure on myself. But that's the approach you have to take."
In the nineteen years since Love turned pro, his game has changed considerably. He remains among the Tour's longest drivers, but his swing is shorter, simpler and more precise than it was, and he's comfortable playing more types of shots. Butch Harmon, who worked with Love for a while after his father died, said he is particularly impressed with Love's newfound ability to control his partial shots, from 150 yards in. And Lumpkin says that Love's putting is the best it's ever been. So the question inevitably arises: Could Love conceivably challenge Tiger Woods for number one?
"I think Davis can do anything he sets his mind to," Lumpkin says. "Take last year. If Davis had won the British Open, he probably would have been voted Player of the Year. [After leading on Saturday morning, he finished two strokes behind Ben Curtis.] He's two strokes from beating Tiger for Player of the Year. So I'll answer your question with a question: Is that challenging Tiger?" Lumpkin didn't mention it, but Love also enjoyed a satisfying end-of-the-year, two-shot nonofficial victory over Woods (and a $1.2 million winner's check) at Tiger's own tournament, the Target World Challenge.
Love himself, however, doesn't parse the question this way. He is extremely motivated to win tournaments and both drawn to and fascinated by the challenge of beating Tiger head-to-head. But he does not seem to be focused specifically on becoming number one in the world. "I love the fact that since 1996 when Tiger came out, I've run up against him more than anybody else," he says. (Tiger won his first Tour event, at Las Vegas, in a playoff against Love.) "Just as I'm sure that Arnold Palmer sits back and thinks, 'You know what?They say that Jack Nicklaus is the greatest player ever, but I was the guy who challenged him, and I'm held in a different kind of high regard because I did.'"
If that fairly reflects Love's attitude, it's partly because he's not competitive in the same way as Woods—who since childhood has been obsessed with beating Nicklaus's all-time record of eighteen majors—or as someone like Phil Mickelson, who can't stand to lose at anything, from hoops in the driveway to a bet on the Super Bowl. Love tells me that recently his brother, Mark, beat three Tour players in a round at Sea Island. "I won't mention any names, but that was a really big deal for him," Love says. "For me in a round like that, I couldn't care less. I want to work on my game and play and have fun, but as for score, I hope everybody shoots sixty-two. That would be great. I'm not competitive in that way."
What Love does live for, however, is the adrenaline rush of competing inside the ropes at PGA Tour events, against the top players, for big money. "When you get nervous and your stomach's in a knot coming down the stretch, because you're in contention and you want it so bad, so bad—that's what keeps older golfers like me playing. That's my drug. That's my fun. I mean, you walk off the green and think, 'Man, that's what it's all about.' And that's what I probably didn't say enough to myself in the match-play event against Tiger Woods. Instead I got defensive. I started thinking about results."
The three-and-two loss to Woods at February's Accenture Match Play Championship was much on Love's mind when we talked, but not in a self-reproachful way. It was more like he was gripped by trying to solve a puzzle: how to beat Tiger the next time the two face off. "Sometimes I get criticized for paying too much attention to Tiger, and being too buddy-buddy with him, but that's how you learn," he says. "That's how I first became good friends with Freddie Couples. I wanted to hang out with him when he was number one to figure out how he did it. And Tiger, he talked all the time about how Nicklaus did this and did that, because he was modeling himself after Nicklaus. So yeah, I like hanging out with Tiger. I want to know how he gets the job done, what his strengths and weaknesses are, because I want to beat him."
In Love's view, the thirty-six-hole match with Tiger at the Accenture hinged on the last hole of the morning round and the first hole of the afternoon round. Coming into the par-five eighteenth in the morning, Love was up by two, but he missed the green with his approach shot and then lipped out his eight-foot birdie putt, while Tiger made birdie. "If I had put my one-iron on the green and two-putted, just like Tiger did, during the break we'd be sitting there at lunch and he'd look over at me and think, 'Dang, I hit my two best shots and you hit your two best shots and I'm still two down.' Well, that would have been huge," Love says. And then, when Love missed a makeable birdie putt on the first hole in the afternoon and Tiger made his to even the match, the tide turned. (Love denies that the fan who heckled him through this stretch had any effect on the outcome.)
Through all the preliminary rounds up to roughly this point in the tournament, Love says that he had managed to keep to his game plan: one shot at a time, stay in his routine, block out everything else. But then what you might call the Tiger Effect kicked in. "Tiger knows what match play is all about, and he knows that if he just plays his game, other guys will start to make mistakes. I get that feeling myself. I know if I put my name up on the board, other guys will see it and start to press and try too hard and get careful, and in golf that's what kills you," he says.