Love returns to PGA, Ryder Cup picture

8/18/2006 - Golf

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Davis Love III will admit it. He's been a bit of a jerk. That's my word, not his, but I'd like my chances in court if he sued for libel.

When you think of Love -- and there hasn't been much reason to do that during the last two-plus years -- you think of the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot, when a rainbow appeared as he took his emotional victory walk up the 18th fairway. It remains his first and only major victory, a stunningly low total given the breadth and width of his talent.

Love hasn't won a tournament since 2003. Entering this week's PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club, Love had missed the cut in six of his last 11 majors. In stroke play this year, he has exactly zero top-10 finishes. The low point, when he probably wanted to stick his head into the working end of a Toro mower, came at The Players Championship in March. He went from a first-round 65 -- and the lead -- to a second-round 83 to miss the cut.

So it's something of a surprise to see Love's name not only on the leaderboard here Friday, but almost atop it. He trails leaders Henrik Stenson, Billy Andrade, Tim Herron and Luke Donald by just one stroke, and could have been leading the whole thing had he not suffered a blown engine a day earlier. But Love isn't complaining. He made the cut and maybe, just maybe, he might make the Ryder Cup.

The PGA Championship, perhaps unfairly at times, is considered the least prestigious of the four majors. But this week, especially for Ryder bubble players such as Love, it represents a last chance to squeeze onto the 12-man U.S. roster. And nobody wants to be part of that roster more than Love, the only active American player with a streak of six consecutive Ryder Cup appearances.

The top 10 players in the U.S. Ryder Cup point standings automatically make the team. Right now, Love III is more like Love XVth in those standings. In all likelihood he would need at least a top-eight finish at Medinah to earn a guaranteed spot. And if he doesn't, then his Ryder fate is in the hands of team captain Tom Lehman, who has those two discretionary selections at his disposal.

Before this week, the chances of Lehman using one of his captain's picks on Love were about the same as John Daly running the Boston Marathon. Even now, Love isn't sure he deserves one of those precious spots.

"To be honest with you, no, not right now," he said. "I think I need to give [Lehman] a reason not to pick me and go ahead and win this tournament and let him go pick somebody else."

The PGA Championship loves an underdog (Shaun Micheel in 2003, Rich Beem in 2002, Mark Brooks in 1996), and believe it or not, Love qualifies. This year he's missed the TPC cut, the U.S. Open cut and the British Open cut. So he hasn't exactly been Mr. Major or, in the TPC's case, Mr. Near Major.

Nobody has ever confused Love with Denis Leary, though he has a reputation for candor and accessibility. But his golf struggles have had a trickle-down effect on his mood, enough so that Love issued a semi-apology after Friday's round.

"... I thank everybody for their patience with me the last couple years because I haven't played very well," he said, "and I haven't been much fun to talk to."

Friday's round helped lighten things up. Love bogeyed the first three holes he played, but then slowly worked his way back from 2-under overall to 7-under. This came a day after he stepped to the par-3 17th at 7-under, the first-round lead his for the taking, and left the green at 4-under. The nightmarish triple bogey even included a whiffed pitch shot.

But Love recovered Thursday, and he recovered again Friday. And don't think Lehman, who called Love's Thursday adventure on 17 "a trainwreck," isn't paying attention.
"Very impressive," said Lehman of Love's 68-69.

Lehman knows Ryder Cup history. He also knows DL-III history. Love made his first Ryder appearance in 1993, then 1995, 1997, 1999, 2002, and 2004. He brings 26 matches worth of experience and a 3-1-2 record in singles play.

But even though Lehman was a teammate on those '95-'97-'99 U.S. rosters, history and friendship only go so far. Love's Thursday and Friday rounds are a nice start, but only that, a start.

So Love tries to pretend his Ryder Cup future isn't at stake. At The International last week, where he missed the cut, Love was able to forget about the Ryder standings "about half the time." This week he said the number has improved to 75 percent. But that still means a quarter of time is spent playing the Ryder what-ifs.

"I've never thought about, well, this is a $100,000 putt, or this tournament is worth $1 million, or I need to move up into the Top 10 so I can make more money," Love said. "But I think this year I've starting playing for points, and it's really been a distraction."

One way or another, Love has two more days to end the distractions. He can win the PGA Championship and a guaranteed Ryder invitation to Ireland. He can finish high enough on the leaderboard to give Lehman a cluster headache when it comes time to use those captain picks. Or he can whiff, like he did on 17.

"I told [Lehman] all along, take the guy who's playing good," said Love. "Don't worry about anything else: experience, age, highest-ranked player under 30 that's an American. Take whoever is playing good, is what I told him. I know he's going to do that because he wants to win."

So does Love. Now he has to prove it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.