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Davis Love III makes the rainbow connection

When Davis Love III arrives at Winged Foot GC for the U.S. Open, he figures he'll bring along "a stiff neck and a lot of positive memories." Love's oft-chronicled physical ailments come and go, so they are not nearly as persistent as his fond recollections of Winged Foot, where he won the 1997 PGA Championship. Now, if he leaves there with his clubs, that would be different. Seems that in the euphoria of Love's first, and as yet only, major title, his golf bag celebrated quite alone, in a locker next to the cubicle he used during that warm August week.

The problem is one with which we all can identify. Love had booked two private planes for family and friends to return home, and his weapons didn't make the cut. Love's brother and caddie, Mark, stored them shortly after the popular victory and there they stayed until the clan reached Sea Island, Ga. "Mark was on one plane, and I was on the other," Davis recalls. "I thought the clubs were with him; he thought they were with me. A while after we got back to the house, we realized the clubs were still in New York. We had them sent by courier to the next tournament, the World Series of Golf. They beat us to Akron."

That equipment malfunction, however, was about the only mistake Love made at Winged Foot because nobody came close to beating him. He whipped the field by five strokes on a layout that felt like a U.S. Open venue and treated all but a few players accordingly. With his third 66, Love closed Sunday at 11-under 269, dwarfing the tournament course record of 276 established by Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman before their 1984 Open playoff. Justin Leonard, who had won the British Open a month before, took second to Love with 274. Jeff Maggert (276) and Lee Janzen (279) were the only others to break par. The year's other major champions did not contend: Tiger Woods, who romped by 12 at The Masters, finished T-29 at 286, and Ernie Els, who claimed his second U.S. Open in June, was T-53 at 290.

There were no harbingers that Love would stage a virtuoso performance oozing with symbolism and framed by a rainbow. He had played well in the previous three majors that season but was winless overall and admittedly still haunted by thoughts of the 1996 U.S. Open, where he bogeyed the last two holes and wound up a stroke behind victor Steve Jones. Early in the week at Winged Foot, Jack Lumpkin, Love's swing coach then and now, was concerned.

"Davis was moving all over the place," Lumpkin says. "Starting Monday, we worked on getting him quieter over the ball, keeping him still. By Thursday, he was fine. By Sunday, I was back home, watching every shot and crying like a baby." Lumpkin felt a personal attachment; in 1960, he took a job as assistant to Claude Harmon at Winged Foot. But it went deeper than that.

During his brief tenure there, Lumpkin befriended Love's father, Davis Jr., who was working under Wes Ellis Jr. at Mountain Ridge in New Jersey. Davis Jr. was killed in a plane crash in 1988. When his son climbed the 18th green at Winged Foot that Sunday in August 1997, even hardened New York galleries noticed.

"The rainbow," Davis III says. "It had rained, and I saw this rainbow. Everybody saw it. I'm not a rainbow guy. A buddy of mine painted a rainbow on my motorcycle after that, but I didn't think it looked right. So I guess I'm not as sentimental about it as I could be. Thing is, I think of my dad every day, all the time. But when people talk about 1997, they talk about the rainbow and my dad, looking down on me. Which is great, because it brings back memories of my dad to them. I wasn't aware of how much Jim Nantz had made of it on TV while it was happening. But after it was over, during the interviews, it was obvious a lot of people had watched the CBS telecast. It's not like I wasn't emotional. After my second shot hit the green, I kind of pulled my hat down, trying to contain myself. I saw them lining up [wife] Robin and [mother] Penta. It was an unbelievable feeling. My dad was a PGA professional, a teacher who had played in the tournament -- he always referred to it as the PGA Championship, never just the PGA.

"When I was 10, I watched him play the PGA Championship at Tanglewood GC [in Clemmons, N.C.]," Love continues. "I remember being awed by the whole atmosphere. What a great life. So to win it and have that rainbow, it's the best thing for my dad's legacy. We've been sent pictures and paintings, but not as many as you would think. See, my ball landed on the right side of the 18th green. So most of the photographers moved over to the left side. That's where the rainbow was, so it was actually behind them. There are still a bunch of shots from the right side, though, some from the bleachers, and it's like a sea of blue because they gave out these ponchos to people for the bad weather. Cool."

In 1997, Love stayed with Harlan Batrus, a Winged Foot member. (Batrus was the man who rescued the clubs and shipped them to Akron.) Love's opening 66 tied him with John Daly. Friday's 71 dropped Love a swing behind Janzen. On Saturday, Leonard posted a 65, Love a 66 and, at the end of a long day, they had lapped the field. They were both at seven under; their closest pursuers were Janzen and Tom Kite at even par. "Strange how that happened," Leonard says, "for two of us to be that far ahead of everybody else." Talk to Lance Barrow about strange. He was in his first year as coordinating producer for CBS. "There was a rain delay in the third round, so we went off the air, on schedule, at 6 p.m. Eastern," Barrow says. "Then play resumed, and we got a hurry-up call to go back on. I don't know whether that's happened before or since. I phoned Ken Venturi and got him out of the shower to return to the tower." About 9:30 that evening, Barrow finally made it to his hotel.

"Lance is a good friend, and we had plans for dinner," Love recalls. "But it was so late, I figured we wouldn't hook up." Robin thought otherwise. "I had the room-service menu in my hands," Barrow says. "Davis rang me and said just because he's in the lead and it's late, we're not gonna change anything. He didn't have to play again until 2:30 the next afternoon. Robin said she's having dinner with one of us, so it might as well be both of us. We went out, Davis was loose. He hadn't qualified for the World Series. So I asked him, 'What are you gonna do next week?' He says 'I'm gonna win tomorrow, go home for a day or so, then go to Akron.' I told him, 'OK, win or lose, I'm going back to Sea Island with you.' Let me tell what kind of guy Davis is. I'm a big iced-tea guy. We got on the plane Sunday night. He's just won his first major with the rainbow and all the memories of his dad. And Davis is over there, making me an iced tea. He forgot his clubs, but he remembered what I like to drink."

The Love-Leonard final-round pairing was comfortable for both players, save for the fact they each endorsed the Polo line of clothing. "What if we had showed up wearing the same thing?" wonders Love, who had a more pressing concern. He reckoned Leonard, with a major title under his belt, would live up to his reputation. "He's a tough guy, and I felt I would have to get him early," Love says. He shot an outgoing 32, five better than Leonard's 37. "He was playing great, and I wasn't so great," Leonard says. "But there was a two-shot swing at No. 12. I birdied, and he bogeyed. Then he hit his tee ball left on No. 13, a par 3, short-siding himself. I hit a good shot, looking at maybe 12 feet for birdie. I'm thinking maybe there'll be another swing. Then he made a great chip, almost holing it. After the 16th, where he hit two perfect shots in a downpour and led by four, I figured it was over. And if anybody besides me was going to win, I was happy it was Davis. He'd been wearing that label you guys like to hand out -- 'best player never to win a major' -- and it was nice to see him get that monkey off his back."

As the two leaders neared the 18th green, Love motioned for Leonard to join him. Leonard respectfully demurred. "It was Davis' time, and he deserved to walk ahead," Leonard remembers. "And as I look back, I can only think, 'Wow, was that day meant for him or not?' He's finishing in style, under a rainbow, maybe with his dad looking down on him, with the best seat in the house. If you don't say you aren't surprised Davis hasn't won another major, you'd be lying. But that tells you how much more difficult it is to do now. So many more guys can do it."

Love concurs, yet not in a way to hide any empty feelings. Compared with 1997, he says, there might be twice the number of capable challengers for the big four events. "But I'm only 42, and that's my main motivation now," he says. "I'm restless because that window is closing, and that's why I have to make sure I get out of my own way. I find myself trying almost too hard. Trying to be too perfect. I don't think my routine was ready for the '96 Open. I think I learned from that, and it helped me at Winged Foot. The beauty of it is, I can win this U.S. Open. A lot of it is mental. I've had the physical stuff going on for a long time, but I feel stronger since I've been on this conditioning program the last year or so. I don't think being 42 means I'm past my prime, but there is the pressure of time. I still really enjoy the challenge of majors. I need to make the Ryder Cup team. Just like I did in 1997. I need to win a major, not just a major at Winged Foot." Lumpkin feels Love is swinging better than he's scoring. "It has not been a good year for him," Lumpkin says. "But I believe he's ready to break out, just like 1997."

Love, who sacrifices distance for control, nevertheless led the 1997 field with an average drive of 307 yards. He also hit 41 fairways and 50 greens. "That was the key, keeping it straight," Love says. "I just switched to a metal wood. I was one of the last dinosaurs. I'll take 307 yards off the tee again, but I don't think that will lead."

Love plans to take Lumpkin to Winged Foot for a practice session during the week of the Barclays Classic. "I haven't been back since they made it longer and cut down all those trees," Love says. "But it's not like I won't recognize it or feel good vibes. I'm staying with Harlan again, along with Freddie Couples and Mike Hulbert, just a short walk from the entrance, and I'm sure I'll hear about the rainbow and my dad. Funny, my son, Dru, [12-year-old Davis IV] is at that age now where he can't get enough information. He's asking all these questions about my dad and how he taught me and so forth. And as a father myself, who learned the game from my father, one of the best things I see is when Dru plays. At the end of his matches, no matter what anybody shoots, the kids remove their caps and shake each other's hands. If I've had anything to do with that, I'm happy."

Love knows he often is characterized as too nice a guy, not mean enough, lacking the killer instinct. But he also hears that he doesn't emote enough, that he should wave to galleries and acknowledge his fans. "Which do you want?" Love asks rhetorically. "I am what I am. I don't mean to be rude. I realize we're out there to entertain. I just don't feel comfortable making a lot of eye contact when I'm between the ropes, which is four hours of work. Four hours you live for, but it's still my office. I'd like to win more majors. Maybe someday they'll decide to rank my [two] Players Championships as majors. But I want to be known for what I do off the course, too. If it was between another trophy or leaving golf with the reputation as someone who helped make the game better by the way he conducted himself by taking something from Byron Nelson, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, people like that, I would take the latter."

When Love putted out at Winged Foot in 1997, he did remove his visor and put in it his upraised right hand. Then Penta darted onto the green. She jumped into her son's arms, and they agreed: Davis Love Jr. was definitely in attendance. The Loves just know he'll join family and friends at Winged Foot for this Open.

"Another story from 1997," says Davis, smiling. "One of our buddies, John Justice, saw the Wanamaker Trophy sitting there, unattended, after the ceremony. He and Mark liked the looks of it, so they took it, thinking we could bring it home with us. A security guard saw them. No, the trophy stays. They didn't know. They figured the trophy was part of the deal. We had a good laugh over that. Then we started asking each other. Where are the clubs?"

Bob Verdi is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.