From Ryder Cup hero in 1993 to Ryder Cup captain in 2012, Davis Love III is no stranger to high stakes international competition. The 20-time Tour winner and 1997 PGA champion is Fred Couples’ assistant captain at the 2013 Presidents Cup, pitting Tiger Woods and the U.S. against an international (non-European) squad led by 2013 Masters Champion Adam Scott. Love hosted a clinic for kids from The First Tee of Metropolitan New York at Chelsea Piers Golf Club and sat down for an exclusive interview with Golf.com to talk about potential Presidents Cup pairings, Ryder Cup regrets, and why Tiger Woods might feel like he has something to prove at Muirfield Village.
In the opening scene of John Feinstein’s A Good Walk Spoiled, you were walking toward the critical hole at the 1993 Ryder Cup, trying not to throw up, and not just in the golf sense. What makes international competition different from high-pressure play elsewhere?
You go into it wondering who you’re going to play with and play against, but then you get to the opening ceremonies. They raise five or six flags against you, and then they raise the American flag and play the national anthem, and you realize, “I’m playing for the United States.” That’s when the pressure starts to hit you a little bit, you know, “This is serious. I gotta win my points.” It’s a fear of losing that you don’t really get in the first round of a regular tournament when you’re playing by yourself. In the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup, every shot, every point, every half a point is important. You’re letting somebody down if you don’t play well. I’ve never felt so bad as in Detroit [in the 2004 Ryder Cup] when I hit a bad second shot on the second hole with Chad Campbell as my partner. We felt like we let the whole team down. The thrill of winning and the deflation and the disappointment of losing are just so much higher and lower when you’ve got teammates and you’ve got a captain and, as Byron Nelson said, “You’ve got bags alike and pants alike and shirts alike.” It just feels different when you have the red, white and blue on.
This is your third coaching stint — 2010 Ryder Cup assistant captain, 2012 Ryder Cup captain and now 2013 Presidents Cup assistant captain. What’s the most important message you try to impart to your players, particularly those new to Presidents Cup competition, like Jordan Spieth?
It’s a crazy week. There’s so much going on, so we try to make it as normal for them as possible and keep them from guessing as much as possible. That’s my philosophy, and it seems like it’s Freddie's philosophy. They can go in, as much like a normal week as possible, prepare Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
As a Tour player, [Spieth] probably has more experience in his first time because he’s just played on Walker Cup teams and World Amateur teams and college golf teams. It’s gonna be fun for him, maybe a little intimidating to be in the room with Mickelson and Woods, but he’s so mature. I think what I’ll try to tell him is “Everybody wants to play with you.” He should have confidence: one, he’s playing great, two, everybody wants to be paired with him. We’re just gonna try to keep him calm and get him prepared and tell him what to expect. He’s had a big year, so people are going to be watching him. I won’t have to worry too much about him. I just have to worry about guys fighting over playing with him.
Can we expect similar pairings to the 2012 Ryder Cup, or are you planning to shake things up? Who’s going to play with Tiger?
Freddie already knows who he’s going to play together. He said he’s got it figured out and it’s easy. We’ll have some of the same pairings, but I think you’ll see some differences from what we did at the Ryder Cup. Woods and Stricker, they’ve enjoyed playing together, but I think they might be tired of playing together. I don’t know exactly who’s gonna play with who, but they’ve had discussions. I’ve been a little bit out of the loop because [assistant captain] Jay [Haas] and Fred are on the Champions Tour talking about it all the time, and the last time I talked with them, they said, “We got it all figured out. We’ll fill you in when you get here.” Sounds like I’m just gonna be driving a cart watching Jordan Spieth play.
Tiger has played poorly in the Ryder Cup throughout his career, compiling a 13-17-3 record, and the U.S. has lost five of its last six Ryder Cups, winning in 2008 when Tiger did not play. By contrast, Tiger is tied with Jim Furyk for the most wins in Presidents Cup history (20), and the U.S. has dominated the series, going 7-1-1 since the tournament’s inception. What gives? As goes Tiger, so goes the team?
We’ve had success [in the Presidents Cup] in the past, so that lets our guys relax a little bit. We’ll be more relaxed at Muirfield than we will be in Scotland [for the 2014 Ryder Cup], because we’ve been losing in the Ryder Cup. We want it back so badly that we try too hard and get in our own way. Step on our toes.
As goes Tiger in the locker room, I think he’s come a long way from feeling like he had to win every match. What he did for me in Medinah was incredible. He was a team leader. He fit in with Mickelson and Stricker and Furyk. They were the guys that the rest of the team was looking up to. He sat when it was his time to sit. He supported the other guys. He came out and watched. He’s challenging guys to play ping-pong and video games. He still sticks to his intense routine. He gets up really early and works out, but he’s become a lot better team player. If Tiger’s off by himself and distant, and Phil’s off by himself and distant, it doesn’t bring the team together, but if they’re playing partner ping-pong together, and they’re hanging out in the team room, then everyone’s excited that they’re around those guys. You’re gonna have three or four guys on the team who just wanna sit at the table with Tiger Woods and talk to him, because you get to be a teammate of Tiger Woods. It’s like being a teammate of Wayne Gretzky. As good as he is on the golf course, I don’t think it’s quite as important as the influence he has off the course.
But I’m like everybody else. I’m excited about Jordan Spieth, and I’m excited about Tiger. Coming in, he had such a good year, what’s he gonna do, a week off and relaxed, knows he’s getting ready to have a little bit of a break, but he’s got something to prove after last year. He played really well at the Ryder Cup last year, but he didn’t get the points, so I think he’s got something to prove.
Do you regret any of the decisions you made as Ryder Cup captain in 2012?
I wish that I hadn’t sat on the first tee and watched everybody tee off [on Sunday]. I wish I had gone out on the golf course and watched guys play. But that’s always been the tradition: the captain watches every match go off. I remember Sunday morning, telling my wife, “Make sure you’re at the tee on time because we have to take pictures with each group that comes out.” Why? We’re trying to win this thing. If I’m needed on the third hole with the second group, that’s where I oughta be. That would be the only thing that I wish I could go back and do differently. Keegan and Bubba, they wanted to go fast, they wanted to get out and run. So they were running, and they got nervous, and they didn’t play well. If Freddie and I were out there, bouncing around between the groups, maybe calming them down, maybe giving them some confidence, maybe it’d be different, but by the time we got out there, those guys were already in trouble, and that just fed down the chain, putting more pressure on the middle guys, which put more pressure on the guys in the back. We just got off to bad start.
I was thinking specifically about your decision to let Phil Mickelson sit out when you considered changing your game plan after Mickelson and Bradley went undefeated in three team play matches. You’re still on Tour, so you play with these guys every week. Is it hard to coach your competitors?
I think you have a better relationship. Phil can say that to me. Phil was saying, “Hey. We’ve been talking about this for two years. It’s working. Don’t come out here on 13 and tell me we’re gonna change the game plan.” So it was good to have a close enough relationship with those guys that you can be honest. You can walk up to Stricker and say, “See you looking at the leader board. Just play your game. Everybody else is fine.” That’s why Fred asked me to be assistant captain, because I’ve been around these guys a lot more than him these past couple years. Same thing with Corey [Pavin]. He was on the Champions Tour when he was captain of the Ryder Cup team, so he needed Paul Goydos and I, who are out on the regular tour, to tell him, “Who is Keegan Bradley? I don’t even have his phone number. What is he like, and how do I pair him.” That’s where being out there is definitely a benefit.
Speaking of the Champions Tour, you turn 50 in April. Are you going to make the jump immediately?
Not yet. I had major neck surgery — I basically had the Peyton Manning surgery — and it took me three months to come back. I didn’t do all that so I could go get ready for the Champions Tour. I want to be healthy for a couple years and give the Tour another shot. I haven’t come to grips yet with the fact that I was old enough and established enough to be the Ryder Cup captain. I’m not quite ready to be Byron Nelson sitting in the chair and watching everybody tee off at the first hole of McGladrey [Classic, Love’s hometown tournament in Sea Island, Ga.]. Some days my body does feel 50, but I never feel like an old guy.
Is it tough teeing off against all these youngsters?
Jordan Spieth is six months older than my son. [Spieth] recruited him, tried to get him to go to Texas, where he went, but he went to Alabama. It’s definitely strange. There’s kids out there like Billy Haas, who I’ve known since he was a baby. I remember Jay Haas saying that he’d been on tour for 21 years, and I said, “How do you play golf that long? You’re nuts.’” And this is gonna be my 28th year, and now Billy Haas has won the FedEx and is on the Presidents Cup team. I’m still playing with Haas and Stadler, but it’s their kids. I’m lucky I’m still playing. I just know that I’d hate to go to Q School now. There are so many good players. It’s just unbelievable. It’s a crapshoot now. But it’s inspiring at the same time. I’ve got a great group around me to keep me pushing, I see how hard they’re working so it makes me work too.