Like everyone else who played for the United States in the 2012 Ryder Cup, Brandt Snedeker vividly remembers the scene in the American team room in the aftermath of the loss to Europe—the so-called “Medinah Meltdown.”
“Everyone was in tears,” Snedeker said. “I mean everyone, without exception. We felt awful because we’d let the [four-point] lead get away. We felt like we’d let the country down and each other down.” He paused. “More than anything though, I think we all felt like we’d let Davis down. We knew he was going to get the blame and that just crushed us all. We wanted so much to win for him.”
Davis was Davis Love III. As it turned out, he got a second chance to captain a Ryder Cup team four years later, in large part because his peers believed he deserved it.
The night before the teams were scheduled to arrive at Hazeltine National for the 2016 matches, Arnold Palmer died. The next morning, Love—like everyone else on the property—was asked to share some of his memories of Palmer. The first one that came to his mind dated to 1996, when Love was part of the U.S. Presidents Cup team Palmer captained. The night before the matches began, Palmer gave his players a lecture that was more about how they conducted themselves than about winning the matches.
“He reminded us that we were representing our country this week, not just ourselves,” Love said. “He said that most of us could do a lot more as public figures to pay back everything we got because we played golf. He said we should always sign autographs; we should always try to say yes when asked to do things for charity or for sponsors or for anyone we could help.”
Love paused at that point to gather himself. “Then he looked at me and pointed a finger and said, “HE gets it. The rest of you should try to be more like him off the golf course.”
Love wanted to go on, but at that moment he couldn’t. His voice cracked and he had to pause. When he finally gathered himself, he closed by saying, “I can’t tell you how much that moment meant to me. There was no one like him. Never will be.”
No one would argue that point. But Palmer knew what he was talking about all those years ago when he singled out the then 32-year-old Love as the person who had most closely followed his example of being more than just a money-gobbling professional golfer.
Love is 54 now—55 in April—and he’s in the World Golf Hall of Fame, having won 21 times on the PGA Tour, including the 1997 PGA Championship. And yet he’s still got some game left. Even though he could probably challenge Bernhard Langer for dominance on the PGA Tour Champions, he chooses to play often on the regular tour.
On Sunday, Love shot a five-under-par 65 at Waialae Country Club to finish seventh at the Sony Open in Hawaii, reinforcing his belief that he can still compete with the kids. (He beat 2018 U.S. Ryder Cuppers Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas, and his pal Snedeker in Honolulu.) Four years ago, at 51, Love became the third oldest player to ever win a PGA Tour event (behind Sam Snead and Art Wall) when he won the Wyndham Championship.
What’s more, Love still believes he’s capable of winning again. “I know I’d have to have an almost perfect week, make every putt, but I still think I’ve got the game to do it,” he said. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother to tee it up. I’m not going to just take up a spot in the field.”
But Love’s legacy goes well beyond his playing career—past, present or future. He’s not Palmer—he’d be the first one to tell you that. He doesn’t have Palmer’s charisma or his unique ability to make anyone he came in contact with feel as if they were the most important person in the world.
What Love doeshave is Palmer’s generosity of spirit and his instinct to do the right thing. That was why, when the PGA of America created the Ryder Cup Task Force after the Americans loss at Gleneagles in 2014 to give players input into decision-making with the team, the other five active players on that committee—Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk—were unanimous in their desire to see Love be the U.S. captain again.
“We all knew Davis had done a great job at Medinah,” Furyk said. “He put us in position to win on Sunday, and we didn’t finish the job.”
Or, as Stricker once put it: “We all want to grow up to be like Davis. He’s been a role model out here for a long time.”
Love has won just about every good-guy award there is in golf: the USGA’s Bob Jones Award; the PGA Tour’s Payne Stewart Award; even the Jim Murray Award, presented by the Golf Writers Association of America each year to a golfer who goes out of his way to cooperate with the media. He’s also been elected to the tour policy board four times, not because he has wanted to serve that often but because his fellow players and the tour’s commissioners during his 34-year playing career—Deane Beman, Tim Finchem and Jay Monahan—all wanted him on the board.
“Every time I say This is the last time,” Love said, laughing. “Then they ask me to do it again and I can’t say no.”
No is not a word that pops up often in Love’s vocabulary. The son of noted golf teacher Davis Love Jr., is often asked on the range to take a minute and look at another player’s swing. Only once did he say no—well, almost. Years ago, Tom Kite, one of the great swing tinkerer’s of all time and an early mentor of Love’s, asked him to check his swing on the range one afternoon in Greensboro.
“I’m only going to do it,” Love answered, “if you promise me I won’t see you out here tomorrow asking three other guys to check you. I want to give you one thought and let you work on it, not start changing again tomorrow.”
Grudgingly, Kite agreed.
My first experience with Love provides a clear example of why he’s so well-liked by the media. I was beginning my research for my book about life on the PGA Tour, A Good Walk Spoiled. Love was one of my first sit-down interviews. We were at Kingsmill in Virginia, site of the gone-but-not-forgotten Anheuser Busch Golf Classic. It was July and the temperature outside was about a million degrees. Love had endured a five-hours-plus Pro-Am round, and I wondered if he’d beg off a lengthy interview.
“Give me 30 minutes to get something to eat,” he said. “I’ll meet you at my condo.”
About two hours in to the interview, I asked Love how he was set on time. He hadn’t looked at his watch yet—very surprising to me. He shrugged. “You said you were writing a book,” he said. “So I just blocked off the afternoon.” Talk about a reporter’s dream.
I also spent hours with Love before, during and after that 2016 Ryder Cup as part of my research for another book. When Ryan Moore clinched the U.S. victory with his singles win over Lee Westwood, the American team—players, caddies, wives—spilled onto the green to congratulate him. Love didn’t go to Moore right away. Instead, he went and picked up the golf ball that Moore had putted to within a foot of the 18th hole. Westwood had conceded the putt and the match.
“I remembered my first Ryder Cup, when I made the clinching putt,” Love said, referring to the 1993 matches at the Belfry when his six-foot par putt on the 18th hole had given him a 1-up win over Costantino Rocca, clinching the cup’s return to the U.S. “I never got a chance to get the ball out of the hole. I was mobbed and then I had to find Costantino.
“I didn’t want that to happen to Ryan. I wanted to make sure he had the golf ball. So, I picked it up and, when I hugged him, I handed him the ball.”
Except that Moore wouldn’t take it. He shook his head and said simply, “no captain, I want you to have it.”
Love still has the golf ball.
More than that, he very clearly is looked up to and respected by everyone in golf. He may not be Palmer, but more than anyone out there, he has lived up to the principles that made Palmer so special.
Davis Love III will be honored with Golf Digest’s Arnie Award “for golfers who give back,” next month at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.