Love loading up for Masters push

SAN DIEGO -- Playing well takes care of everything, and of course that is the easy thing to say. But Davis Love III has yet to see the invitation with the Augusta, Ga., postmark arrive in his mailbox, and he can't help but take a peek at the rankings that, short of a victory, will punch his ticket to the Masters.

For nearly two decades, such concerns were all but an afterthought for Love, 44, who before an injury late in the 2007 season had not missed any major championship since 1990. But now he is on the outside looking in -- yet playing well enough to be within a fingertip's reach of one of the most coveted spots in golf.

"I'm trying to take the attitude 'play the best I can,'" Love said at the Buick Invitational, where he is tied for 32nd, 10 shots back of leader Camilo Villegas. "But I'm watching it ... it's hard not to watch it, but I know that if I continue to do the things I'm doing, the ranking will keep continuing to improve."

Love is referring to the Official World Golf Ranking, in which he currently holds the No. 58 spot after tumbling all the way to 198th in September of last year.

A victory would automatically take care of the Augusta invitation, but if Love is unable to notch his 21st career PGA Tour win, then his next option for gaining entry to the Masters is to rank among the world's top 50 on March 30, one week before the year's first major championship.

The world rankings can be complicated to figure out, but in essence, if Love can post some high finishes in the next several weeks, he will move up. His 5-over-par 77 on the Torrey Pines South course Friday at the Buick Invitational didn't help the cause, as he dropped 30 spots from a tie for second.

But it is especially important for him to finish well in the Accenture Match Play (top 64) and the CA Championship at Doral (top 50), because good showings against strong fields in those World Golf Championship events are sure to help his cause.

A win in the season-ending Children's Miracle Network Classic last November earned Love a spot in the Bridgestone Invitational later this year. But Love still must qualify for the other two WGC events, and he knows all too well their importance in his quest to climb the world rankings.

"If you don't play in the World Golf Championships, it kills your world ranking because you're missing three of the biggest tournaments," he said. "I missed all three last year."

Love's streak of major-championship appearances began at the 1990 British Open and continued through last year's PGA Championship. During that span, he had 17 top-10 finishes, including a victory at the 1997 PGA. As recently as 2005, he was in contention at the PGA, where he tied for fourth.

But since then, Love has missed the cut in six of 11 major championships and his game has slipped from the heights that saw him finish among the top 20 PGA Tour money winners in 15 of 17 years.

The 2007 season ended prematurely when Love suffered torn tendons in his left ankle after stepping in a hole while playing golf at home. The freak injury meant a lengthy rehabilitation period -- and not enough time to earn a Masters invitation. For two months, he could basically do nothing golf-related, although he quickly got involved in a rehabilitation program.

"Most of it wasn't fun, but it was a challenge and it took me until the end of January [2008] to feel like I could really start playing," Love said. "And I'm still doing stuff. It's going to be a process."

Love's win at the 2006 Chrysler Classic of Greensboro came three years after his last win on tour and increased his PGA Tour career total to 19. No. 20 didn't come until last fall -- and that Children's Miracle Network Classic victory didn't come with a Masters invite because Fall Series events do not qualify for the honor.

Some, including Love, consider that win total to be lacking given his talent, his long game and his pedigree. His late father, Davis Love Jr., was a renowned teacher, and Love arrived on the PGA Tour after a fine amateur career. He won his first PGA Tour event more than 20 years ago, in 1987.

But give Love credit for perseverance. With nearly $40 million in career earnings, he could have taken it easy after the ankle injury.

"I'm getting over my injury and I'm feeling better," Love said. "You don't know what comes first -- the chicken or the egg -- but I'm gaining confidence. I've been saying for years I'm not far from playing well, but I think I'm getting there, putting in the right kind of work. I'm excited about the year. I finished off last year well and am excited about this year."

As for that Masters invitation, Love said it is difficult not to think about it.

"Obviously 50 [in the world rankings] is kind of a magical number these days, but 30 takes care of 50," Love said. "So I just keep trying to work my way up."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.