Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Love enters Masters on a roll

The Detroit News

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The time is now for Davis Love. If the man once labeled a can't-miss winner of The Masters is ever going to achieve the fame and glory that goes with winning at Augusta National, he might never have a better chance.

Love's game is purring. His confidence is soaring. The putter is working beautifully. And there never was any question about his game - long and powerful - being perfectly tailored for the lush Augusta fairways.

Love is a multiple winner this year, including the Players Championship two weeks ago, where he played a flawless final round to shoot 64 and lap the field. It was a kind of round Tiger Woods has demonstrated so frequently with everything on the line. This time, it was Love pulling it all together for a majestic victory.

"It was definitely one of the biggest challenges of my career, because I certainly didn't need another near-miss and I had to hang in there," said Love, who also won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this year. "I needed to play a good round of golf."

Under the gun. On a championship golf course. Against the best field in the game. To prove to himself and a lot of other people that he can.

Love has been criticized for being almost too nice to win big and possessing none of the killer instinct champions need in crunch time. He's let his share of victories, big and small, get away. As a front-runner, he's no Raymond Floyd. As a pursuer, he's much better, as he proved again at the Players Championship. He came from behind at the TPC of Sawgrass Stadium Course to overtake leaders Padraig Harrington and Jay Haas.

"I started the year determined to play better and to feel better," said Love, who has encountered his share of physical problems in recent years. "I don't know if I'm feeling better because I decided I was going to feel better or if I just finally got over it. I was ready for improvement. I've had a lot of times when I didn't pull it off and I wasn't going to let that happen again."

Most recently, he let a victory get away at the Honda Classic last month, playing a poor final round and allowing Justin Leonard to claim the win.

"I was putting all my thoughts into why I didn't win (at the Honda) or why I didn't win here or there," Love said. "I did my best job ever of putting it behind me."

Now it's all in front of him, and it starts this week at The Masters, where he has twice finished second (1995 and 1999) and has four top-10s.

Love will celebrate his 39th birthday Sunday - on the final day of play at Augusta. Love's career already is made. He's second on the PGA Tour career money list behind Woods with $22.8 million. He's won 16 tournaments and doubtless will add another handful before he's done. He's played in all the international matches, from the Walker Cup as an amateur to the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Dunhill Cup and World Cup, an event he won four straight years in tandem with Fred Couples.

All that's left is for Love to win a few more majors, not an easy task in the Woods era. Love has won one - the 1997 PGA Championship. He finished second in the 1996 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills.

"I've always been fired up for a big tournament," said Love, prefacing his pre-Masters emotions. "I certainly won't expect to shoot 64 every day for the rest of my life but, yes, I fully expect that now I can go and say if I keep doing this, if I stick with it, I can do anything I want to do as long as I'm prepared.

"I'll be prepared and I'll do my best.

"I might win and I might not, but at least now I'm back to where I was when I was picked as a guy that had a chance to win Augusta."

That wasn't the case the past several years. Love's form has slipped and his name wasn't among the first mentioned when the contenders were listed. He is now, right up there at the very top, just one line beneath Woods, who has won The Masters three times in the last six years.

"It's nice to be back in that position," Love said. "There's a lot of guys who have the talent. It's whoever has the intestinal fortitude and the mental toughness to do it week after week in a big tournament."

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