By John Feinstein
It has been a week since Davis Love III’s life changed forever, and his voice is still filled with emotion as he describes the extraordinary events of the morning of March 27.
The night before had been a fun one for the Love family: Daughter Lexie, her husband, William, and their three daughters had come over for dinner at Davis and Robin’s home in St. Simons Island, Ga. And, as often happens, 5-year-old Eloise wanted to spend the night.
Davis’ wife, Robin, was exhausted and suggested a sleepover for Friday night because Eloise had school—learning at home—that morning. Perhaps the Loves would have all three grandchildren over at some point on the weekend.
“As it turned out, that was a very lucky break,” Love told me. “A lot of nights, it wouldn’t have just been Robin and me in the house, and who knows what would have happened. Fortunately it was just us.”
Shortly after 5 a.m. on Friday morning, the Loves were awakened by a beeping sound on their alarm system. Normally when their alarm went off, it would start shouting, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” (On occasion during the winter, when Robin had attempted to start a fire in the fireplace, an issue with the flue had caused the house to fill with smoke.)
“This was different,” Love said. “I looked at the alarm, and it said, ‘FO3.’ I knew that was a fire of some kind but wasn’t really sure what was going on. We both got up, and I went out and looked around and saw nothing. I decided I needed to check downstairs. When I got to the garage, it was on fire. I couldn’t get to the fire extinguisher in there, so I went back upstairs to get one. The minute I walked back inside, all the lights went out. By the time I found the extinguisher and got back, the fire was so bad I couldn’t see anything in the garage.
“I started shouting to Robin to get out, and I heard her yelling at me to get out. My ear got singed a little because I was looking around, still trying to figure out where she was. When I finally backed into the driveway, she was standing there saying, ‘I’m right here.’
“Robin said we had to get a phone to call 911 and went to the back of the house to see if there was any way in. There was no way. We ran to the barn and called from there. I remember Robin saying, ‘Where are they? What’s taking so long?’ It felt like hours. We realized later it was less than five minutes. It just felt like it was taking forever. We were standing there watching our house burn down. The house is made of pine wood. I knew we weren’t going to save anything.”
The house was 12,000 square feet and three stories. “I think it might have taken 10 minutes for the house to be completely engulfed, and it was completely gone in less than half an hour,” Love said. “All we could do was stand there and watch. It was beyond awful.”
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. The Loves’ garage had only two doors, but it is big enough to fit six cars. The garage had a gym, a tackle room, a workshop, a bounce house for the grandchildren, barbecue equipment, a trough for raising baby chickens and a playroom area.
“I’ve what-iffed the whole thing in a thousand different ways,” Love said. “If not for the coronavirus, we’d have been away at Puntacana [the event opposite the WGC-Dell Match Play] because I’d have played there. Maybe whatever happened in the garage wouldn’t have happened if we’d been away.
“On the other hand, what if we’d gone to the bathroom or taken time to put on clothes, or if I hadn’t gone downstairs? What if one or more of the grandkids had been with us? That’s what I focus on—how lucky we were. I was talking to Dru [the Loves’ 26-year-old son] and saying how sorry I was about all the stuff from his childhood we’d lost, and he said to me, ‘Dad, I don’t care about anything that was in the house. All I needed to come out of that fire OK was you and Mom, and you both did.’ ”
Talking about his children and his grandchildren and some of his close friends still causes Love to pause and his voice to crack just a little.
“The way the community has reacted to this has been unbelievable,” he said. He laughed for a moment: “I went from zero pairs of underwear to 50 pairs in a couple of hours. Ten years ago, the Southern Soul restaurant here on the island burned down, and we helped them out while they were rebuilding. Now, they’re helping us out.
“At one point, there were a number of people over and offering me different things I really didn’t feel like we had to have. So, I was saying, ‘We’re fine—really, we’re fine.’ Lexie pulled me aside and said, ‘Dad, all these people want to help because at some point you helped them. You need to say yes and thank them because it’s important to them, not because it’s important to you.”
• • •
Love didn’t know what to do when Eloise, his oldest granddaughter, insisted on seeing the house. He called Bob Rotella, the sport psychologist he has worked with for almost his entire pro career, and asked him what do.
“He said, ‘You have to show it to her. But don’t talk about what you lost, talk about what you’re going to build together. Talk about how she’s going to help you guys design the new house when the time comes.’ ”
Love took Eloise with him on Thursday to take his boat to the Sea Island marina to dock. They spent close to five hours together getting the boat ready and then took it to be fueled, all the while talking not about the past, but about the future.
“She had three questions for me,” Love said, laughing: “ ‘Is the boat OK? Can we still go fishing? Is the barn OK—can we still have chickens?’ When I told her the boat was OK, we could still go fishing and the barn was OK, she said, ‘Then everything will be alright.’ ”
By the time the afternoon was over, Eloise was already planning for the new house, including the swing she wants from the tree fort she plans to build.
Love knows there are still difficult times ahead. He feels lucky that playing in the PGA Tour Champions event at Pebble Beach a couple of years ago led him to decide to switch over to Pure Insurance, which deals with high-net-worth individuals.
“They had a team of people at the house the day of the fire,” Love said. “It helps a lot to know they’re going to do everything they can to make this easier for us.
“Still, right now, there’s no way to know when we’re going to have a chance to start rebuilding because right now there’s no way to even think in those terms. I’m looking at rentals for a couple of years—that’s realistic.”
For the moment, the Loves are staying in a waterside condo owned by a friend—the same place they stayed after Hurricane Matthew forced them out of their house in the fall of 2016—not long after the American victory in that year’s Ryder Cup.
The Ryder Cup replica Love was presented as the captain of that year’s team was lost in the fire. So was most of his golf memorabilia—the notable exception being the replica of the Wanamaker Trophy he received for winning the 1997 PGA Championship. That is currently part of his display at the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Tournaments have been great about calling to say they’ll get us replacements, and I’m grateful for that,” Love said, “but the one piece I really want replaced is the crystal my father won on April 9, 1964, for leading the Masters after the first round.”
Davis Love Jr.’s first son—Davis III—was born four days after that.
• • •
Love has always been one of the most popular players in the game, especially among his peers. Not surprisingly, he has been overwhelmed by the number of people who have reached out to him since the fire. And yet, that, too, has been difficult.
“I’m still struggling to get on the phone and talk to people,” he said. “A few of the guys I’ve been closest to going way back—[Billy] Andrade, Zach [Johnson), [Scott] Verplank, [Justin] Leonard and Mike Hulbert, who’s been my rock forever—I’ve called back even though I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to talk.
“I haven’t gotten on the phone with Freddie [Couples] yet because he’s so clearly upset in his texts, I don’t know if I can handle it. We’ll both just end up crying. Same with Steve Stricker.”
Love has turned to Rotella and longtime PGA Tour bible-studies leader Larry Moody for advice and comfort, but his main focus has been on his family.
He and Robin suffered some smoke inhalation, and the onsite EMTs told Love he should think about getting checked out at the local hospital. “If not for the coronavirus, I probably would have gone,” he said. “But I told them, ‘Unless you tell me I need to go, I’m not going.’ They said if I got worse to go, but I didn’t. Same with Robin.”
The emotional damage has been much more difficult to deal with. A couple of nights after the fire, he and Robin went to dinner at a neighbour’s house—practicing social distancing. At one point, Robin realized she needed something from the house.
“She stood up to go, then remembered,” Davis said. “She just sat down and started to cry.”
The tears have flowed often. Sometimes Davis comforts Robin; sometimes she comforts him.
Davis went to Target one afternoon to get some household items Robin needed: a vacuum cleaner, some toys for the baby, a small fan, cleaning materials.
“I was in the grocery area, and I saw this package of rubber bands—the kind Robin always likes to put in her hair,” he said. “I grabbed a couple packages. When I got back, I handed Robin all the stuff, and then took out the rubber bands. People had been giving her regular rubber bands. She looked at the packages and burst into tears. Normal things mean so much right now.”
Perhaps the most difficult thing for Love to deal with has nothing to do with the fire. His mother, Penta, is 93 and suffered a stroke a little more than three years ago. She is in assisted living and since the coronavirus outbreak, the Loves haven’t been able to visit her.
“That’s been tough on all of us,” he said. “Fortunately, I don’t think she knows about the fire.” He paused and laughed. “All she watches on TV is Fox News.”
There have also been some left turns made to go back to the house instead of right turns to go to the condo. Through it all, Love remains upbeat and optimistic.
He has dealt with tragedy in his life: the plane crash that killed his father, the pilot and two close friends in 1988; his brother-in-law’s suicide in 2003; and now this.
And yet, he sees himself as blessed and lucky. “I do believe God has a plan, and that’s what’s gotten me through the tough times,” he said. “I’ve had friends who have gone through this. The doctor who delivered our children [Carl Dohn] lost his house six months ago. Raymond Floyd [fire] and Steve Melnyk [hurricane] lost their houses, too. I know I need to talk to both of them. I just haven’t been able to bring myself to do it yet.”
In fact, Penta Love’s family lost their house in a fire in 1949. There are moments when Love thinks about what he and his family lost and starts to get teary-eyed.
“I look at Lexie and the remarkable young woman she’s become, and then I think about a painting of a little girl on her horse that’s gone,” he said, his voice cracking just a little. “Lexie was married in that house—we had five weddings in that house. We celebrated so many moments in our lives there.
“But when I think about it all, going back to losing my dad, I think back a year ago when Alice [the Loves’ youngest granddaughter] was born five weeks premature. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed harder in my life than I did right after she was born.
“Yesterday, I sat here in the condo on the floor and played with her, and she’s a healthy, happy kid.
“I don’t look at the glass as half-full or three-quarters full. I look at it as 100 percent full. What happened could have been so much worse, and it’s helped me understand just how lucky I’ve been in my life and how amazing all the friends I have truly are. We’re not homeless. We’re not hungry, or out of jobs, and we’re not sick. We’re amazingly fortunate.”
He paused. “You know, the night the fire happened, Robin and I sat in our hot tub just before bed and kind of dickered about making barbecue. Making barbecue is my thing; it’s what I do. She suggested I make as much barbecue as I possibly could and deliver it to the local restaurants.
“I said, ‘What if we get a professional out here to do it? The barbecue will probably be better, we can give him some work when he needs the money, and the restaurants will get some extra food for free that they need right now.’
“She agreed, and we went to bed. Six hours later, the house was burning down.
“It’s very sad and we still have a lot to go through the next few weeks, months, years. But it puts a smile on my face that the last conversation Robin and I had in that house was about helping people. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to help people throughout my life.
“Now, I can’t even begin to tell you how much it means to me to see how much people want to help us.
“I’m so lucky. My glass is completely full.”