A few days after finishing his PGA Tour season with a tie for 10th place at the Wyndham Championship, Davis Love III was headed south toward Jacksonville, Fla., in search of surf when a billboard caught his eye.
They are ubiquitous along Interstate-95 as you approach the First Coast, sprawling enticements for the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., that are adorned with the faces of the game’s undisputed greats – Arnold, Jack, Gary. No need for last names, these titans stand alone as undisputed benchmarks.
On Tuesday in Manhattan, Love will join that list of greats. It should be no surprise that he’s not entirely comfortable with the notion.
“You know me,” Love said last week as he was again making his way down 95. “You see this sign, and it’s Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as you get into Jacksonville. It just doesn’t seem right.”
Since it was announced he would be among the Hall of Fame Class of 2017 – which includes Meg Mallon, Lorena Ochoa Reyes, Ian Woosnam and Henry Longhurst – Love has slowly, begrudgingly even, come to terms with his pending status; but he admits the entire affair, from deciding what to place in his locker at the Hall of Fame to his induction speech, has been a little surreal.
As he’s done since his earliest days on the PGA Tour, Love turned to Fred Couples for guidance. He didn’t call Freddie - Couples really doesn’t do phone calls - but he studied how his friend handled the same nerves and questions when he was inducted in 2013.
“Fred Couples had a great line at the start [of his induction speech], ‘How did I get here?’” Love said. “I’m the same way. How did I get in this position? I’m going in the Hall of Fame with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. I’m still a little bit mystified by it.”
Love once said the hardest part about being a two-time U.S. Ryder Cup captain was writing and delivering the required speeches. The podium that awaits on Tuesday, however, is a much different animal.
Love and the other inductees get six minutes for their speeches. Six minutes to thank those who helped them along the way. Six minutes to touch on the highlights of a career littered with highlights. Six minutes to put three decades of competition at the highest level into some sort of perspective.
“You only get one shot at something like that,” Love said. “You get up there and say, 'This is what I believe in.' Like, Fred Couples, I learned something about Fred Couples watching that speech.”
Although it’s still a work in progress, Love has a general idea how he wants his six minutes to unfold.
He would like to reflect on a professional career that began in 1985, a career that includes 21 Tour victories and the 1997 PGA Championship, a career that has had a predictable ebb and flow. He’s enjoyed the friendly confines of TPC Sawgrass, where he’s a two-time champion, and Harbor Town, where he won five times. He’s been a staple on U.S. teams, regularly teaming with Couples to go a combined 25-20-9 in a dozen starts in the Ryder and Presidents cups.
“When I came out on Tour, I wanted to work as hard as Tom Kite, I wanted to drive the golf ball like Greg Norman, I wanted to be as cool as Fred Couples, I wanted to win as many tournaments as Jack Nicklaus,” he said. “I never really thought about the Hall of Fame.”
In 746 starts on Tour, Love has made 559 cuts and finished in the top 10 179 times. He won his first title, the ’87 Heritage, at 23 years old, and his last, the ’15 Wyndham Championship, at 51. But it’s the space between those milestones where Love sees his greatness, however reluctant he may be to allow such self-indulgent reflection.
Perhaps he could have won more. Maybe he could have allowed the singular focus of a lifetime in golf to burn unabated, but at what cost?
“My mom would say, ‘If you would have practiced more and quit goofing off, you would have played better.’ Well, she’s probably right, except I might have gotten tired of it and not played for 30 years,” Love figured. “Maybe I wouldn’t have won at 51 years old.”
It’s his longevity, more than those statistics on his resume, where Love sees true accomplishment. The year he joined the Tour (1986), Nicklaus was, although past his prime, still a force. Almost 30 years later, it was Love who defeated Woods the last time Tiger played a weekend on the Tour at the ’15 Wyndham Championship.
His locker at the World Golf Hall of Fame will include the persimmon-head driver he played from 1985-97, one of the last played on the Tour, and letters, so many letters, from a range names including both presidents Bush and Bob Hope.
“There was one we found where Butch [Harmon] is like, ‘Good playing, but your swing has gotten long,' and all this stuff. And you look at the date, and I’d just won like three tournaments,” Love laughed. “They were like, ‘He wasn’t being very nice.’ And I’m like, ‘My swing had gotten long and flippy. Why do you think I was working with Butch?' He told it like it is.”
And he will talk about the Ryder Cup, all of the Ryder Cups, not just the triumphant ’16 matches. If it’s his longevity that has defined his professional life, it’s the biennial matches that have left a bittersweet personal legacy.
Love will tell you that half of his 10 favorite moments are from losing Ryder Cup efforts. He lost as a captain in ’12 at Medinah, a crushing defeat after taking a four-point lead into the final day, and he was a member of the cabal that overhauled the U.S. process following the ’14 loss in Scotland.
“The two Ryder Cup captaincies, if you said, 'You could win another major or be Ryder Cup captain again,' I’d say Ryder Cup captain again,” said Love, who led the U.S. team to victory last year at Hazeltine National.
Where some see a pedestrian Ryder Cup record, Love sees a lifetime of cherished memories. As rewarding as last year’s victory over Europe may have been, and it was rewarding, there is a camaraderie that is forged at these team events that can’t be diminished by defeat.
“I will never convince Brandt Snedeker that I’m just as proud of what he did in 2012 as I was in 2016, because he’s so competitive. He wanted to win that for me,” Love said. “I have the same feeling for Tom Kite (the 1997 captain). I’m still mad at Tiger and mad at Justin Leonard and mad at myself, because we all won majors, and we played crappy, and we didn’t win for Tom Kite.”
And finally, he wants to end his speech with a joke, a light moment that ties together three decades of dedication with a laugh.
“Fred had a plan. He went in there and asked himself a question, and then he kind of answered it, and then he made a joke at the end. They told me to finish with a bang,” he laughed. “Still thinking about that.”
Well, like Love’s career, it’s still a work in progress.