Davis Love III wins big match against Henrik Stenson

Davis Love III wins big match against Henrik Stenson

Davis Love III beat Henrik Stenson on the 21st hole.
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Marana, Ariz. — The biggest match played at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship Wednesday may not have been the one you think. You know, the one that the whole world breathlessly watched as Tiger Woods began his comeback with a birdie-eagle start.

All right, so maybe nothing else compares with the happenings in Tiger World, but there was a lot riding on at least one other match, also a comeback story of sorts. That’s the continuing saga of Davis Love III, who overcame ankle surgery in the fall of 2007. His hours of rehab work eventually paid off when he won the final event of the 2008 season at Disney World.

That isn’t the end of his comeback. Love missed the Masters last year, his first missed major after 70 consecutive appearances. Yes, Disney put him back in the winner’s circle, but he won’t be all the way back to being Davis Love until he’s once again in all the elite tournaments, all the majors, and contending.

Love, 44, is gaining ground. Playing here this week was a start in itself. “I’m happy just to be here,” he admitted Wednesday after he survived a match with Henrik Stenson that went 21 holes. It has been a long climb back into the top 64 in the world rankings, and there’s still work to be done. Love ranks 58th. He needs to be inside the top 50 to make the next World Golf Championship event at Doral in two weeks, and the Masters. So he could use a good showing this week, which means every match is vital for him.

“I know when the deadlines are because I’m making my schedule around that,” Love said. “I know the deadline to get in the CA Championship is this Monday, and the Masters is the Monday after Bay Hill. I don’t look at what I have to do, just the deadline. I just try to play well. I do know that if I win this week, I’ll be in the Masters and that takes care of everything else.”

Love plans to play next week’s Honda Classic. He needs a good finish at Match Play to make the field at Doral, which would in turn earn him more ranking points to cement his place in the top 50 for the Masters. If he doesn’t get to Doral, he’ll play the event at Innisbrook. He was forced to skip the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, one of his favorite tournaments, rather than risk a long, exhaustive run.

“I hate to miss Riviera but I knew I’d be in here,” he said. “I told the guys in LA, if I play there, I may have to play all the way through Bay Hill to get in the Masters and I’d be done.”

Love’s match with Stenson wasn’t the best-played match of the day. “It wasn’t pretty,” Love admitted, “but I advanced.”

One match down, five to go. It’s progress and that’s all Love, a 20-time tour winner, who has a 19-9 match record in this event, is looking for. While Tiger’s comeback has been the main story in golf the last eight months, Love’s comeback has been a similar work in progress for twice as long.

“I am so lucky to even be out here,” Love said. “Look at Fax [Brad Faxon]. He hurt his knee and he hasn’t been able to play at all. Luckily, I had gotten in better shape before I got hurt so I was able to bounce back. I just want to keep at this as long as I can.”

Love will face his friend Justin Leonard in the second round. Another long-term goal this year is to make the Presidents Cup team, which will be captained by his good buddy, Fred Couples. The good news is, Love was among the two dozen or so players who were measured this week for team uniforms. “At least I’m on Freddie’s radar,” Love said, “so that’s a plus.”

First comes that big event in April — his birthday. The day after the Masters, he’ll turn 45. Guess how he wants to spend that birthday weekend?