During The Players Championship, navigating the dangers of the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass is nearly more about where not to hit the ball than where to smash it.
Davis Love III knew the ball was going somewhere it shouldn’t have gone when it came off his long iron shot into the par-3 eighth hole in the final round of the 1992 Players Championship — long and right, in the second cut of thick rough, with the pin cut back-right.
That hole was also one of the few occasions Love’s famed concentration on the golf field was broken — but only in the best possible way.
The subsequent shot, with Love taunting a pair of rather obnoxious fans behind the green, has become Players mythology, and Love said it is still one of his greatest moments in a World Golf Hall of Fame career full of them.
“Some people told me I wasn’t confident enough as a player,” Love explained. “I had a lot of self-assurance, but I didn’t like displaying it.” But there was one instance in which I did. “Those people irritated me.”
Rewind to the start of the round in that scenario. Love started the day three strokes behind Nick Faldo, but he hadn’t had the finest start to the tournament: he opened with a 67, then scored 68, and then battled a bit on Saturday with a 71.
Faldo, on the other hand, was going in the opposite direction, starting with a pair of 68s and then shooting a magnificent 67 in the third round to move into the last group with Phil Blackmar.
Faldo was one thing. He was one of the best closers in big event history. But one shot behind Love was Fred Couples, who had shot the first 63 in tournament history the day before, breaking his own 64-hole record.
The stage appeared to be set for a winter and spring war between Love and Couples, the two top players in the world and long-time friends who had been dealing haymakers on the Tour’s Western and Florida Swings.
Early in 1992, love and couples ruled.
Couples teamed for third and Love tied for eighth at the Tournament of Champions at La Costa, kicking off the traveling slugfest. They both finished in the top ten at the Bob Hope Classic, and it all came to a head in the L.A. Open, when Couples won with a birdie on the third playoff hole at Riveria. Before Couples put a stop to it, they both parred the final five holes in regulation and both birdied the first playoff hole.
The Tour then traveled to Florida, where the two duked it out once more. At Doral, Couples came in second by two strokes to Raymond Floyd, while Love tied for fourth. Couples finished second in the Honda Classic the following week, losing in a playoff to Corey Pavin (after Pavin eagled the 18th hole from 136 yards out at Weston Hills to force the playoff), then blew everyone away at Bay Hill, winning by nine strokes with Love tied for fourth.
Couples had six top-10s and two victories at the time, while Love had five top-10s and was searching for his first title and fourth of his career. Couples won the 1992 Masters, while Love won in Hilton Head and Greensboro that year.
Mark Love, Love’s brother and caddie at the time, said, “He was playing at a really good level.” “You felt like he had a chance to win week in and week out, and this [The Players] was one of the major ones.”
Love and Couples, both a little introverted, were the toasts of the golf world all of a sudden.
“It felt like either me or Freddie was in the interview room every week, and usually both of us,” Love added. “We were putting forth a lot of effort.
“I’m on the hunt for a famous closer.”
And The Players’ last round had all the makings of being more of the same.
Couples, on the other hand, didn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and it wasn’t all his fault. Couples caught the sick overnight and arrived at the opening round gasping and hacking. They shot 74, 11 strokes higher than the day before, and swiftly dropped to a tie for 13th place.
After starting the day one shot ahead of Love, his partner in the next-to-last partnership, Blackmar struggled to a 73, and Ian Baker-Finch had a 72.
That left Love with the task of catching Faldo, who was at the pinnacle of his abilities. Faldo had previously won three of his six major titles and would go on to win his third Open title later that summer. With its challenging wind, pot bunkers, and high grass, the Stadium Course seemed tailor-made for the tenacious Brit.
Love was one stroke behind Faldo on the eighth tee. And after his tee shot landed in the tall grass behind the green, it looked like he’d be lucky to be just two down — and given that Faldo was playing the par-5 ninth, which had given up the fifth-most birdies on the course that week, it could have been even worse.
After all, who wants to be three strokes behind Nick Faldo on the back nine on Sunday in any tournament?
“It was getting to the stage where people were saying I should win a major,” Love said, five years later at the PGA. “And this major, course, and field offered everything you could desire in a major.”
And then there’s the pressure.
With his caddie and brother Mark by his side, Love considered the shot behind the eighth green and soon envisioned the worst-case scenario. Coming out of the rough, he needed to get the ball high and softly land it around halfway to the hole. He’d have a long par attempt if it went past the cup with any zip.
The loudmouths then stepped in to stop Love from visualizing the shot.
Two fans who had been betting on players from behind the green began haggling about the odds of Love making par from where he was.
The wager was finally settled: one fan bet 5-to-1 that Love would not be able to get up and down.
When Love heard the supporters, he gave no indication. He didn’t even give them a glance. He simply took his brother’s 60-degree wedge, took three practice swings, and gently lofted the ball into the air.
It achieved the desired result. The ball landed on the green, slid into the hole, and broke slightly left.
Love then removed the mask. “You’re both incorrect,” he cried to the audience.
And he was absolutely correct. The wager centered on whether or not Love would save par. This is a carry-over.
Love, on the other hand, has the best carryover: momentum.
Once again, the short game comes to the rescue.
Faldo bogeyed the ninth hole ahead of him for no apparent reason, giving Love a one-shot lead.
Mark Love talked his brother out of hitting a putt with break on the 10th, assuring him it was straighter than it looked, and he made it two strokes with a 30-foot birdie putt.
That was the case.
With a birdie at No. 11, Faldo cut the lead to one stroke, and Love, who was laying up on the green, faced another nervous moment when his wedge ball went over the green.
It’s no problem. From a challenging lie, a golfer who was mentioned with Couples as one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour made another up-and-down par.
Love birdied the 12th hole but blew it on the 13th with a three-putt bogey.
Love’s short game was once again required on the 14th hole. He blew a 9-iron over the green, and the ball landed in a puddle of mud. Love flopped the ball out to within a foot of the goal, securing his lead.
Love was still leading by two holes until Faldo slipped ahead of him on the final three holes. He responded by stepping on the gas.
Love missed the green with a 2-iron approach at No. 16 and came close to eagle. He subsequently birdied No. 17 with a tee shot that came within 5 feet of the hole, giving him a four-shot lead.
“All I cared about was getting it on the green,” Love added. “At 16, I felt like I’d accomplished enough, and all I needed to do now was avoid a tragedy at 17.”
NBC broadcasters Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller praised Love for hitting a shot from the right rough to within 12 feet of the hole on the 18th hole. On what had been a foggy day in the 60s, the sun came through for the first time as he walked to the hole.
He stated of the memorable moment in New York in 1997 when Love tapped in for his major win, “It wasn’t the rainbow that came out at Winged Foot.” “However, it was a pleasant experience.”
Love two-putted for a 67, tying the course record set four years before by Mark McCumber. It was the first of his two Players wins; the second came 11 years later, when Love fired 64 in the final round to rally from a two-shot deficit.
In 1992, Love claimed he was particularly pleased with the short-game shots he had to make at Nos. 8, 11, and 14.
“It felt like there was one of those chip-ins, a tremendous up and down, or a shot out of the trees every time I played well there,” he added. “You have to play well but you also have to be a little bit lucky to win events like that.”
And, for a little while, arrogant.
He explained, “Those folks distracted me a little bit, but I just went back to what I was doing.”