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Leading With Humility

For a sensitive guy who would rather not make speeches and who feels the pain when he has to sit players out in team golf events, Davis Love III has made one heck of a captain for the United States, across the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.

Leading With Humility

For a sensitive guy who would rather not make speeches and who feels the pain when he has to sit players out in team golf events, Davis Love III has made one heck of a captain for the United States, across the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup.

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head of his appearance at the 2022 Kingdom Cup on Hilton Head Island, not far from where he grew up, Love spoke to Robin Barwick about the highs and lows of being the skipper, and shared his candid views on how LIV Golf is trying to redefine tour golf.

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Davis Love III wins the PGA Championship at Winged Foot in 1997

Davis Love III brought a special brand of leadership to the 2022 Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow. His job was to prepare and lead 12 American golfers into match play competition against 12 Internationals, not to be the spokesperson for the PGA Tour in its ongoing, foreboding battle against the breakaway LIV Tour led by Greg Norman. But this crisis has engulfed tour golf at the highest level and, rather than ignore the unwelcome distraction in Charlotte, N.C. in September, Love ran at it head-on and spoke on behalf of everyone involved in the Presidents Cup, the biennial event owned and operated by the PGA Tour.

“We have 12 guys on each team who support the PGA Tour and who want to play in the Presidents Cup and who are fired up to be on these teams,” stated Love, 58, in a preview press conference. At the opening ceremony he talked about 24 golfers at Quail Hollow who were “committed” to the PGA Tour. Carefully selected words saved for the most impactful moments. Love stepped into the breech so that his players didn’t need to. He took care of the politics so they could concentrate on the golf. In other words, he displayed Captaincy.

A few weeks later—after Love had steered the United States to a 17.5 – 12.5 victory over Trevor Immelman’s Internationals, and before he joined Kingdom magazine and friends at the 2022 Kingdom Cup on Hilton Head Island—he had more to say on arguably the most significant rift ever to blight the tour golf fraternity.

“Our guys [playing on the PGA Tour] are just fed up with it,” starts Love, who has become a model for modern American team captaincy, having now captained the Presidents Cup team once and the Ryder Cup team twice (on the losing team at Medinah in 2012 and then basking in redemptive glory at Hazeltine in 2016).

“Those guys made their decision and it’s over. We won’t be wondering if Dustin will be able to play or not next year—that will be the furthest thing from our minds—we’ll be wondering if Keegan Bradley is going to play his way onto the team again.

“I think Greg Norman misled some golfers to think that they would get World Ranking points and that everything would be hunky dory, and that the PGA Tour would settle the lawsuit out of court; that the PGA Tour can’t suspend players. I think some of the younger guys who went to LIV might now be questioning how things are working out.”

“There was never a discussion or a question or even a mention by our team of the LIV players during the Presidents Cup. No one even said: ‘Man, too bad we don’t have Dustin [Johnson].”

Former world number one Johnson surely would have found a place on Love’s team had he not resigned his membership of the PGA Tour to join LIV in June.

Other defectors to LIV who could have figured on the Presidents Cup team include Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed, while the Internationals might have drawn on the talents of [British] Open champ Cameron Smith, Branden Grace, Charl Schwartzel and Joaquin Niemann, among others.

As the American team focus now shifts back to the Ryder Cup, to be held at Rome’s Marco Simone Golf and Country Club from September 30, 2023, there is little prospect of any LIV golfers making a prodigal return.

“From the American side, there is no intention of letting the LIV golfers playing on our teams,” adds Love. “It is pretty cut and dried right now.

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Love partnering David Duval in the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club, Brookline

Setting the new standard

A winner on the PGA Tour 21 times, Love became a major champ at the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot in New York. Love bettered Justin Leonard by five shots that week, having battled through heavy rain in the final round. A rainbow appeared over the clubhouse as Love holed the final putt of a particularly emotional victory, as Love’s father, Davis Love Jnr., was a renowned club pro and PGA of America member, who died in a plane crash in 1988 at the age of 53. It was all the more fitting that Davis Love III’s brother Mark was on his bag for Love’s crowning moment.

Six times a Ryder Cup player, six times on the Presidents Cup team, six times an assistant captain across both teams and one of the most popular and respected golfers in America, Love was even more certain to become a United States team captain than he was to win at Harbour Town on Hilton Head Island, which he did five times on the PGA Tour between 1987 and 2003.

“I am a pro golfer, meaning that I play in professional tournaments, but my dad was a golf professional, which to me means something completely different,” reflects Love, in considering his approach to team captaincy. “My dad was a custodian of the game; he was there to teach and to help his members enjoy playing golf and to be the host of the club, the teacher, the starter on the first tee. He was all those things to his members and I always admired that. My father’s members and students looked up to him and got enjoyment from the game through him.

“As a player on tour you don’t really get to contribute to others like that. You might help a younger player or some kids, but for me, being a captain was a way of doing this.”

When his captaincy debut arrived in the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, Love was a figure of organisation, calm and control in contrast to his European counterpart, Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal, who didn’t communicate with his team or with the media with the assurance of Love, and who wrestled all week with the emotion of captaining the European Ryder Cup team just a year after his great friend, compatriot and past Ryder Cup teammate Seve Ballesteros had died (aged 54).

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Ryder Cup celebrations at Hazeltine in 2016

“I relished the captain’s role because I wanted to give something back to the players,” adds Love. “I have played for some great captains—the greats of the game like Arnold Palmer, Hale Irwin, Ken Venturi, Jack Nicklaus—and then there have been friends like Tom Kite,

so I wanted to do for the players what these guys had done for me. As Tom Watson said at my first Ryder Cup: ‘We are going on a great adventure,’ and I wanted to carry that on.”

Love’s plan and pairings seemed faultless until late in the day on the Saturday, when Europe’s Ian Poulter summoned a flurry of some of the finest match play golf ever played to steal the American momentum. Still, the home side took a four-point lead into the Sunday’s decisive singles matches.

But instead of top-loading his singles order with his in-form players to win the early points and re-gain the momentum, Love left too much form too late in his order, including Tiger Woods. Europe held the momentum and mounted the biggest comeback by an away team in Ryder Cup history. They call it “The Miracle in Medinah” in Europe, not so much in America.

“In 2012, at the end of that Ryder Cup I had that feeling that we had done something wrong, that I had done something wrong, and that I had contributed to the bad Sunday we had,” admits Love.

“I sat down with Darren Clarke [European assistant captain in Medinah], late that night, out the back of the hotel with a cigar and he asked: ‘Why didn’t you load the boat? That is what we have done to you guys and that is what you did to us at Brookline in 1999’.”

“I explained that we did this, that and the other with our singles order and he said: ‘That’s B.S. Always, always load the boat early’.”

“If you pick up the phone to Tiger, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk and ask them what we should have done differently at Medinah, they would all say that we should have put out the players who were playing best out first in the singles. We should have led with Tiger, Keegan Bradley and Phil Mickelson, the guys who were on a roll.”

Unfortunately for Europe, the PGA of America invited Love to return as Ryder Cup captain four years later, for the 2016 chapter at Hazeltine. There was a sense of irony as Love’s great friend Clarke was European captain that year, and perhaps Clarke regretted the advice he had given Love four years before, as come the singles at Hazeltine, the in-form Patrick Reed defeated European talisman Rory McIlroy in a riveting opening match to quell another European fightback. Love had top-loaded his singles order. It was close for a while but Love’s United States team eventually came out convincing winners, lifting the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008.

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Arnold Palmer & Love at the Presidents Cup in 1996 when Palmer was captain
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The victorious 2022 US Presidents Cup team

“Thanks to Darren and other conversations we have had, whether we are four ahead or four behind, we want to grab the singles momentum early,” adds Love.

“We have done that ever since. In Charlotte [in the 2022 Presidents Cup] we were four ahead going into the singles but we had a specific singles order to get us as many points as possible early on and then to have a guy or two at the end in case something went wrong.”

Now that Love has mastered the difficult, all-consuming, multi-faceted art of team captaincy, he is ready to take a step back.

“I feel like I have over-stayed my welcome at a friend’s house and it is time for me to go home,” says Love with a laugh and some typical modesty. “I know Zach [Johnson] has a great plan for Italy and I am going to help him out where I can, but I am done with captaincy now and I can pass it on to the next generation.”

Johnson can look forward to receiving this kind of advice from his good friend Love, if he has not already: “Bob Rotella, my sports psychologist, told me early on: ‘If you act like it’s no big deal, and act like you have it all figured out—even if you don’t—it will calm down the players’. That was great advice and I said to my assistant captains at the Presidents Cup: ‘Don’t go rushing around in a panic. Act like we have this all figured out’. When we get excited it’s very easy to run around.

“I didn’t know I would still be a captain this long but I really wanted to pass on what I received. It was always part of my upbringing; to do for others and to have a servant’s heart.”

A case in point was the Sunday night before the recent Presidents Cup. Max Homa, fresh off his victory in the Fortinet Championship at Silverado, California, didn’t get into Charlotte until 2:30am on the Monday, yet Love joined tour staffer Matt Horton to collect Homa from the airport.

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Love on-course with Max Homa

Recalls Love: “Max was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I am helping with your luggage’. The next day Max said, ‘I can’t believe you came to meet me,” and I said, ‘That’s what we do’.”

That’s a captain for whom a team of golf mega-stars wants to give their all.

“It’s been fun for me,” says Love. “The guys who have played around me on the Ryder Cup know that I am just there to help. I am not there to tell them what to do or to be a coach. I am there to do whatever I can to help them to succeed.”

As long as the leadership, thinking and compassion
of Davis Love III remains in the picture, the succession of American team captains could not be better grounded—a bright future, indeed.

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