Missed chances don't cost Love in the end

Despite struggling to find his swing down the stretch Sunday, Davis Love III still found victory thanks to a couple of spectacular shots and some good fortune.

Sound familiar? That's how he won the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, too.

Love has three wins in 2003, leads the money list, and is off to the best start of his career. That victory total would likely be four if not for a poor Sunday back nine at the Honda Classic, where he finished runner-up to Justin Leonard.

But that win tally could also just as easily be one.

At both Pebble Beach earlier in the year and Sunday in the playoff at Harbour Town, Love had opportunities to close the door, but couldn't. And each time, his missed chances didn't cost him a win.

After chipping in from 67 feet on the 18th to force the MCI Heritage playoff Sunday, Love was a par away from victory after Woody Austin hit his tee shot into the hazard on the first playoff hole (also the 18th). Love just needed to get up and down from just right of the green -- almost the same spot he chipped in from about 20 minutes earlier -- to win. But Love left the chip short and his 10-footer lipped out. They both made bogeys.

Love missed the next two greens in regulation, and Austin had putts of 8 and 3 feet, respectively, on those holes to steal the title, but failed to sink either of them. With new life, Love stuck a 6-iron to within 3 feet on the fourth extra hole -- the 18th, again -- and the rest is history.

The story was similar in the final round at Pebble, where Love saw a three-stroke lead erased over the final six holes by a charging Tom Lehman. Tied with Lehman on the 18th, Love hit a gorgeous approach shot and made birdie, winning by a stroke. Along the way, Love was aided by Lady Luck when his tee shot on the par-3 12th flew the green into thick rough, but hit a photographer and trickled back to within four feet of the cup.

Ten weeks later, Love breathes another sigh of relief.

Thanks to Austin's mistakes, Love's fifth career win at the MCI Heritage will be remembered for the chip-in on the 18th and the spectacular 6-iron on the same hole less than an hour later, not all the sloppy shots in between.

Five observations
1. Despite the heartbreaking near-misses in Sunday's playoff that cost him his first win since 1995, Austin will be leaving Hilton Head a happy man.

Austin had just one top-10 finish in 36 events last year, was 156th on the money list and needed a tie for 26th at Q-school last fall to earn his PGA Tour card for 2003.

But Austin seems to have found his stroke again in 2003. He has two top-10s and just one missed cut in eight events, and -- most importantly -- has already earned more than twice as much this year ($713,174) as he earned in all of 2002 ($307,348).

2. Ernie Els had his third PGA Tour title and fifth worldwide win of 2003 locked up Sunday afternoon, or so it seemed.

Els stood on the 16th tee Sunday with a two-stroke lead after playing his first nine holes in 6-under and parring his next six, but stumbled to the finish. He hit his tee shot out of bounds on 16 and made double bogey. He then two-putted from inside 10 feet for bogeys on 17 and 18, and went from title to 10th place in a span of three holes.

''It's the only shot I kind of missed all day, wasn't it?'' Els said of his drive on No. 16. ''One bad break, and that's the tournament.''

3. There was quite a crowd atop the leaderboard Sunday at the MCI Heritage. Just four strokes separated the top 21 players, by far the highest number within that span in 2003.

Previously, the Honda Classic boasted the most-congested leaderboard, with 13 players within four strokes.

Similarly, 19 players were within five strokes at the Nationwide Tour's Arkansas First Tee Classic this week. Ted Purdy won the event on the third playoff hole after most of the field had to play 36 holes Sunday.

4. Lucky for Candie Kung, the Takefuji Classic is one of eight LPGA events contested over 54 holes instead of 72. If it were any longer, chances are the charging Annika Sorenstam would have overtaken her.

Sorenstam began the final round five strokes back, but after her second straight 67 finished just two strokes behind the 21-year-old Kung, who won her first career title despite playing the 18th hole at 4-over for the week.

"I've been playing catch-up the last two rounds,'' Sorenstam said. "I'm very pleased with the way I played the last two days. I had a chance at the end.''

5. The Champions Tour had its eighth winner in eight events this week at the Emerald Coast Classic, as Bob Gilder smoked the rest of the field with a tournament-record 17-under 197.

Gilder fired a final-round 63 Sunday to win by four strokes after starting the day tied for the lead with Tom Watson, who faded to a tie for 15th after a final-round 74.

The four-stroke victory margin also tied a tournament record.

''It was really fun because I wasn't nervous. I felt in control,'' Gilder said. ''You only get nervous when you're not playing well.''

Up next ...
PGA Tour: Shell Houston Open
Vijay Singh will defend his title in Houston this week against a field that includes Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Toms and Ben Crane.

LPGA Tour: Chick-fil-A Charity Championship
Defending champ Juli Inkster, Karrie Webb, Se Ri Pak, Grace Park and 13-year-old Michelle Wie highlight the field for the event, which is hosted by Nancy Lopez. Annika Sorenstam is taking the week off.

Champions Tour: Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf
The 50-and-over crowd heads to Savannah, Ga., where Doug Tewell is the defending champion.

European tour: Spanish Open
Will this be where Sergio Garcia turns it around? He'll defend his title in his home country, and will have to contend with fellow Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, who's coming off a top-10 finish at The Masters.

Nationwide Tour: Rheem Classic
The Nationwide Tour stays in Arkansas for the second straight week.

David Lefort is ESPN.com's golf editor, and can be reached at david.m.lefort@espn3.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.