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Love at a Career Crossroads

04 Target World ChallengeTHOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Davis Love III looked as if he was hitting his stride.
He finished his best season on the PGA Tour last year by winning the Target World Challenge, holding off a late charge by tournament host Tiger Woods and heading into the short offseason with high hopes.
He had matched his career best with four PGA Tour victories, including his second title at The Players Championship. He earned more than $6 million for the first time in his career. He was No. 4 in the world ranking, and his name often was included when the conversation turned to golf's elite players.
But when he arrived at Sherwood Country Club on Wednesday as the defending champion, Love found himself without a victory for the fourth time in the last six years.
At 40 and hampered by neck problems, he is at the intersection of a good career and a great one.
'I'm in the top 10 in the world, but competitively I haven't belonged there the last couple of months,' Love said. 'I've been consistent my whole career, and I'd like this to last as long as I can.'
The consistency is evident by the fact he finished 10th on the PGA Tour money list with just over $3 million, the only player in the top 10 who did not win this year.
Love came close in the spring. He reached the finals of the Match Play Championship and outplayed Woods, but simply couldn't make enough putts before losing on the 34th hole. Two weeks later, he was poised to win the Honda Classic until Todd Hamilton - an unknown at the time - birdied the last two holes to beat him.
Love never had a good chance the rest of the year. He ended his official season by missing two cuts and withdrawing from the Tour Championship with his recurring neck injury, the result of playing too much in a desperate attempt to hoist a trophy.
'You would think after 20 years of playing competitive golf, you'd figure out when enough is enough,' Love said. 'But this is the first year I really got to the point where physically I wasn't ready to play, mentally I wasn't ready to play, and I was frustrated. Rather than getting away from it, I kept pushing harder and harder.'
He now plans to do regular maintenance on his swing, limiting the balls he pounds on the range. Off the course, he knows he needs to learn to relax, cutting back on the time he spends on his tractor or hunting.
The Target World Challenge, an unofficial tournament with a 16-man field, will be Love's first event since Nov. 4. Not surprisingly, he sees the tournament differently this time.
'I'm looking at it as the start of next year, rather than the finish,' he said.
Love has some concrete goals in mind. With 18 career victories, he needs two more to earn a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour. Only Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson among his peers have won 20 times on tour.
Love, whose only victory in a major came at the 1997 PGA Championship, also is starting to consider how he will be remembered. Right now, he's not sure.
'I'm a couple of majors away from whatever ... maybe the Hall of Fame,' he said. 'I have a chance to have a great career. Right now, it's just a really, really nice career. You want to be remembered as one of the best of your generation. One major is not enough. Two TPCs is great, but I'd like to have three or four.'
He wouldn't mind getting started this week, even though the Target World Challenge doesn't count.
The field includes Singh in his first appearance since being named PGA Tour player of the year. Singh flew in from New York and headed straight to the practice range to hit balls in the cold rain.
The tournament might be an interesting barometer of Woods' game. He won his first stroke-play title of the season last month in Japan, winning by eight shots. Woods knows the Dunlop Phoenix will never be mistaken for a PGA Tour event, although he said he played well enough to win anywhere that week.
And he made it sound like his swing changes have finally set in.
Others in the field include Padraig Harrington, Colin Montgomerie and Miguel Angel Jimenez from Europe's winning Ryder Cup team, along with Jim Furyk and 51-year-old Jay Haas, both of whom arrived from South Africa.
It is a casual week, although it becomes quite serious for those in contention for the $1.25 million winner's check.
Money isn't an issue for Love. Winning is.
He agrees that his name no long belongs in the same sentence as Singh, Woods, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Mickelson. But he knows how to fix that.
'If you're winning, you put yourself up there,' Love said.
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