Lost In The Fog
Twenty years ago three golf professionals -- including noted teacher Davis Love Jr. -- and their pilot took off on a short flight that crashed, killing them, devastating four families and stunning a community
Dramatic, even tragic, events often are preceded by the mundane. Such was the case on Nov. 13, 1988. As four families conducted their lives in a Georgia town, there were no signs the world as they knew it -- comfortable, predictable, safe as a triple-locked door -- was about to be shattered.
It was a Sunday on St. Simons Island, Ga., where everybody knew everybody, or near about, where folks put up with sleepy because they got charm in the bargain. It wasn't where you lived, it was home. Sure, the holidays were around the corner, but this was a put-your-feet-up or catch-up-on-some-chores time. Until a few hours after sunset, things were as normal as normal gets.
After the morning fog burned off, the temperature warmed into the mid-70s. In the afternoon Davis M. Love Jr. watched some football on television, then went with Penta, his wife of 26 years, as she hit golf balls on the Sea Island GC range. Not far away, Jimmy and Susie Hodges were putting in an irrigation system on the lawn of a new home they and their three children were about to move into.
John Popa, their friend and colleague, had taken care of a household duty the day before. "I sent John to the grocery store, which he did sometimes, but not very often," remembers his wife, Cheryl. "I told him we needed a box of Kleenex, some toilet paper and a few other things. He came home from the Winn-Dixie with five or six boxes of Kleenex. I said, 'What are you buying all this Kleenex for?' "
Frank S. (Chip) Worthington III worked for a holding company in addition to flying for Glynco TAJ Aviation, an air taxi company based out of nearby Brunswick airport. "Lot of times on Sunday, we'd ride around and he'd show me the projects that the holding company was doing," says his wife, Marilyn Worthington. "They had a new subdivision. He had a flight earlier that day. We rode around, had lunch. He came back home and made sausage cheese-ball appetizers and put those in the freezer for later on. We had a very nice Sunday."
But Worthington had another task before he could enjoy his homemade snacks. He would be flying Davis Love Jr., Jimmy Hodges and John Popa from St. Simons Island to Jacksonville International Airport that evening in time for the trio to catch Piedmont Airlines flight 1535, a 9:30 p.m. departure to Tampa. The three pros were heading to Innisbrook Resort in Tarpon Springs, Fla., for an annual meeting of the Golf Digest Schools instruction staff. It was only about a 70-mile drive from St. Simons to Jacksonville International, but the short-hop flight wasn't too expensive and allowed Love and his associates more time at home before leaving on their trip.
Passengers and pilot loved their work.
Davis Love Jr., 53, was one of the most respected teachers in golf. He knew the swing chapter and verse -- antique Seymour Dunn was a favorite -- but was smart enough to deliver to his students only the relevant fragments that would help them. His common-sense touch, his ability to inform rather than inundate, made sense considering he had been tutored by a master of simplicity, Harvey Penick, his coach at Texas in the 1950s. Love didn't have a little red book, preferring to keep stationers in business by making copious notes on countless legal pads. He also was a player -- as the old-timers said, someone used to having a score after his name. He was good enough to have finished T-6 in the 1969 British Open alongside Jack Nicklaus, gritty enough to have qualified at Winged Foot for the 1960 U.S. Open despite six stitches in his right index finger that required him to bunt the ball around with a bag full of lofted woods and utilize his stellar short game.
Love's best-known pupil, his older son, Davis III, had notched one PGA Tour victory in 1987, his second year on tour. Only 24, the father's namesake seemed destined for greatness thanks to a precocious game marked by head-turning power. "I never saw a father-son relationship that was as good as Davis Jr. and Davis III's," says Bob Toski, a key Golf Digest Schools instructor. Mark Love, two years younger than Davis III, also was close to his dad, who was careful never to slight him as Davis III's profile increased even though others occasionally did. "Dad was pretty adamant with making sure you didn't equate your golf game with who you were," Mark says.
If James Oliver Hodges V, 35, hadn't been known as plain old "Jimmy," something would have been out of whack. Hodges was a Southerner through and through, a native of Milledgeville, Ga., blessed with an easy manner and quick wit. "Jimmy was the funniest man I ever met," says Ray Cutright, an old friend, "and he didn't even have to say anything to be funny." Hodges taught with Love at Sea Island GC, and their relationship went way beyond mentor-protégé. "Jimmy even walked like Davis," recalls Jim Stahl, a frequent visitor to Sea Island. "Davis walked with splayed feet, and Jimmy was the same way. Sometimes Jimmy tied his shoes, and sometimes he didn't. He was a real guy."
Hodges, who loved to teach juniors, also was Davis III's best friend, a devoted fellow hunter and fisherman. "The minute he saw a duck fly overhead, he forgot about golf," says his wife, Susie. "Fishing. Turkeys in the spring. Hogs. All of that." But Hodges also spent plenty of time, with the blessing of Davis Jr., helping Davis III hone his swing and mediating when there was a disagreement about a lesson point between father and son. "He was going to be the next great teacher," Cutright says of Hodges.
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