Love makes a major case in TPC 6-under 66 puts him 3 back of Elkington

March 29, 1997|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- No one would like for The Players Championship to be recognized as a major more than Davis Love III.

Love is tired of carrying around the tag as the best player never to have won a major, but there wouldn't be that hole in his resume if the Players -- and not the anticlimactic PGA -- were recognized as part of the Grand Slam.

"You feel like you are in a major," said Love, the 1992 Players champion. "You don't get that feeling very often, so you know it when you get it. This is one of those tournaments that everybody gets excited to play in. It definitely has a different feeling than any other tour event."

Love had the proper feel yesterday, as he posted the best second-round score at the TPC at Sawgrass. His 6-under 66 lifted him to within three shots of Steve Elkington, who followed Thursday's 66 with a 69 to get to 9-under.

Larry Mize posted another 68 to get to 8-under, and Tommy Tolles (67) and David Edwards (70) were at 7-under. Love and Tom Lehman (71) were among the four players at 6-under, and now that he's rid himself of five kidney stones that affected his back and swing, Love is in position to win here and then resume his quest for a major.

"I feel I'm very, very close," said Love, when asked if it was the kind of round that could jump-start him for the Masters and the other majors. "I just need a little bit of confidence with the putter to pull me through the tough times in the majors. I feel that there isn't much lacking."

Love has been burdened by great expectations since 1992, when he was tagged for greatness after winning the Players and two other events. He was the runner-up to Ben Crenshaw in the 1995 Masters, and missed a 3-foot putt at last year's U.S. Open that would have forced a playoff with Steve Jones, but Love doesn't feel like his clock is ticking.

"It seems like I have been out here a long time, but I'm still just 32," Love said. "I got an early start at it. Hopefully, some extra experience is going to be good for me in my early 30's."

Love felt like an old man earlier this month, when he withdrew from the Nissan Open after noticing blood in his urine. He underwent surgery March 5 for kidney stones, and returned to form last week at Bay Hill, where he tied for ninth.

"Each day, I'm feeling closer to 100 percent," Love said. "Having three kidney stones on one side and two on the other, I was pretty tight in my back. I really didn't know why, so this has been actually pretty good for me. I feel like I have a lot more rhythm in my swing now."

Love was on 15 greens in regulation, and birdied two of his three holes to vault into one of today's last groups. There will be a dilemma afterward: Does Love go back to the range, or hustle into the locker room to see his alma mater, North Carolina, in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament?

Today's final pairing will consist of Elkington and Mize, whose 30-yard chip-in on No. 5 gave him three straight birdies and resurrected memories of the 1987 Masters, when a similar feat gave him a playoff victory over Greg Norman.

"I just hit a flop-shot up high and it trickled in the hole just like a putt," said Mize, who has just one win in the decade since his Masters. "It has gone by fast. It doesn't feel like it has been 10 years. I guess I've been taken aback with all the attention given the 10-year anniversary."

Norman, who is 1-under after a 72, isn't in contention yet, but the leader board is nonetheless top-heavy with Australians. Craig Parry, who's from Sunshine, Victoria, is in the group at 6-under after a 67. At the top, of course, is Elkington, who splits time between his homes in Sydney and Houston.

"We've got some good young players," Elkington said of the youth movement in Australia. "Stuart [Appleby, who won the Honda Classic] has not been a surprise. Craig [Parry] has been a bit quiet, but I'm glad to see him playing well again. We had a couple of other young kids that have won as well."

Taking advantage of ideal playing conditions early, Elkington made five birdie putts all from 20 feet or less.

Elkington's 69 included consecutive birdies at 11 and 12. Another at the par-5 16th kept him atop the leader board. His more renowned successes have come from off the pace, but he doesn't sound concerned about being the front-runner.

"It doesn't matter," Elkington said. "I've won from behind, and I've won from the front."

Leader board

TPC leader

Steve Elkington 66-69--135

the followers

Larry Mize 68-68--136

Tommy Tolles 70-67--137

David Edwards 67-70--137

selected others

Davis Love III 72-66--138

Tom Lehman 67-71--138

Greg Norman 71-72--143

Nick Faldo 71-72--143

Tiger Woods 71-73--144

Fred Couples 71-74--145

failed to make cut

Corey Pavin 75-72--147

Phil Mickelson 77-76--153

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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