The Year in Retrospect
Hardly anyone noticed when Luke Donald took two chips from the side of the hill next to the 18th green at Riviera Country Club, made double bogey and missed the cut by two shots at the Northern Trust Open in his first tournament of the year. He trudged up the towering row of steps toward the clubhouse to sign for a 79. This was not big news on Friday at lunchtime in Los Angeles. Donald had been off for 10 weeks, and it’s not like his absence was glaring. The talk in golf was about Lee Westwood as the new No. 1 in the world and PGA champion Martin Kaymer opening his season with an eight-shot win in Abu Dhabi. There was curiosity around Tiger Woods and when he would return to his high standard, before this turned into another lost year for Woods because of injuries. Besides, Donald had won just one tournament the previous year, and that was against a weak field in Spain. He started the new season at No. 9 in the world, mainly because of a late string of top 10s at the end of 2010. The Englishman was regarded as a steady player, though rarely spectacular unless the Ryder Cup was on the line. Even as Europe embarked on another golden era in golf, Donald appeared to be one of many. But that missed cut at Riviera proved to be an inauspicious start for the player who would rise to No. 1 in the world by winning more tournaments than anyone, by collecting top 10s at a rate not seen since the glory days of Woods, and by becoming the first player to win the money title on the PGA Tour and European Tour in the same season. Donald played so consistently well that by the end of the year, he was impossible to ignore.
Donald turned out to be a man for all seasons. He won in the winter (World Golf Championship-Accenture Match Play Championship), spring (BMW PGA Championship), summer (Barclays Scottish Open) and fall (Children’s Miracle Network Classic at Disney). Still, he had to battle for attention along the way. Even as he won the Accenture Match Play Championship with the most dominant performance ever in the 13-year tournament, Kaymer took over as No. 1 in the world by reaching the final match. Three weeks after Donald went to No. 1, the golf world celebrated the arrival of 22-year-old Rory McIlroy and his romp at Congressional to win the U.S. Open with a record score (268) by eight shots in a wire-to-wire victory. Who could have guessed that McIlroy wouldn’t be the most popular major champion of the year, or even the most popular winner from tiny Northern Ireland? Darren Clarke became the sentimental star with by capturing The Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. And even late in the season, when it became clear that Donald was having a special season, he found himself in a battle with Webb Simpson, an unheralded American who came on strong late in the PGA Tour season and was on the verge of winning the PGA Tour money title until Donald unleashed an unforgettable performance next to the Magic Kingdom at Disney. “It feels like I’ve answered all the questions thrown at me,” Donald said. That he did.
Donald was voted PGA Tour player of the year by his peers, and he won the points-based player of the year from the PGA of America. He was the European Tour player of the year, and won the award from the Golf Writers Association of America and the British-based Association of Golf Writers. He captured the Race to Dubai over McIlroy and won the PGA Tour money list over Simpson. Donald also won the Vardon Trophy for having the lowest adjusted scoring average (68.86), and by keeping the No. 1 ranking for the final 31 weeks of the year, he became the first name other than “Tiger Woods” on the Mark H McCormack Award trophy given to the player who is No. 1 for the most weeks in a calendar year. Perhaps more impressive than any of those awards is how Donald achieved all that he did. In an era of power, Donald showed that golf still has room for a pea shooter. Even with his moderate length, he finished in the top 10 in a staggering 20 of the 27 official tournaments he played. “I’m more of a traditional player,” Donald said. “That’s kind of my legacy right now, that I’ve been able to get to No. 1 without being a modern-day player. Through hard work and a little bit of thought, I’ve been able to do it.”
Donald doesn’t have the appearance of overwhelming anyone, although that’s what he did at the Accenture Match Play Championship at Dove Mountain in the high desert of Arizona. The format changed this year to 18-hole matches, instead of a 36-hole championship match. Still, no one ever looked more unbeatable than Donald in the 13-year history of this fickle tournament. He became the first player to go an entire week without trailing in any match. Donald played only 89 holes in six rounds, and he led after 81 of those holes. The only time he played the 18th hole was in a practice round. Only once was he taken to the 17th hole, and that was in the second round against Edoardo Molinari of Italy. The championship match featured a 10-minute delay because of sleet that covered the fairway. It was all square going to the back nine until Donald made a marvelous up-and-down for par on the 10th, then won the next two holes. The consolation for Kaymer was rising to No. 1 in the world, the 14th player to reach the pinnacle. And while the German would stay at No. 1 for the next two months before Westwood took it back, Kaymer must have had a feeling that Donald would be the player to beat in 2011. Kaymer saw a short-game clinic that day the likes of which he had never seen. “I think he’s probably the best in the world in the short game at the moment,” Kaymer said after his 3-and-2 loss. “I played with Phil Mickelson a few times and it is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke.”
As impressive as Donald was in victory, he really opened eyes in defeat. After a pair of top 10s in Florida, Donald was among eight players who had at least a share of the lead on the final day at the Masters. His hopes ended on the par-3 12th when he 9-iron into Rae’s Creek for a double bogey. But he came right back, and with a difficult stance from just outside the fairway bunker on the 18th, his approach hit the pin. Then, the Englishman chipped in for birdie and unleashed emotion rarely seen. It was that moment when Donald showed that he was not content to simply show up, have a steady week and cash a big check. That was the accusation in a harsh column by an American writer in a British newspaper during the week of 2009 Open at Turnberry. The story questioned the work ethic and motivation of some players by referring to it as “Luke Donald Disease.” It was one of the few times Donald was stung by criticism in the press, and he was determined to prove himself as a world-class player. And thus, the seed was planted. Donald decided at the end of 2009 to no longer have his brother, Christian, as his caddie. Donald also hired Dave Alred, a performance coach best known in rugby circles as the kicking coach for players like Jonny Wilkinson. Alred, in an interview with the BBC in 2010, referred to Donald as an assassin on the golf course, a player who began to realize he had only one shot to hit the opponent between the eyes because there aren’t second chances. That’s not entirely true, of course, or Donald would be winning every week. But he took the message to heart, and played like it.
Getting to No. 1 in the world was only a matter of time, and just like David Duval in 1999, and Vijay Singh in 2004, everyone knew it. Donald’s first chance came two weeks after the Masters when he was on the cusp of winning The Heritage at Hilton Head, pouring in clutch putts in the final hour, only to see Brandt Snedeker do the same and beat him in a playoff. Donald added top 10s in New Orleans and The Players Championship, then was runner-up at the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Spain, losing to Ian Poulter in the 36-hole final. That set the stage for one of the biggest moments in Donald’s career. With No. 1 in the world riding on the outcome, he scrambled brilliantly along the back nine of Wentworth to get into a sudden-death playoff against Westwood in the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event for the European Tour. On the par-5 18th, Westwood’s approach landed on the wrong side of the flag and spun back into the water. Donald wound up winning, taking over as No. 1 in the world. By then, the golf world was taking notice, and that included a certain legend with 18 major championships. During the winter months when Donald flees the cold of Chicago, he works at The Bear’s Club in south Florida, the course that Jack Nicklaus built. It seems every time Nicklaus was at the course, he saw Donald toiling away. “There isn’t anybody who spends more time working on his golf game than I’ve seen in Luke Donald. And he spends his time chipping and putting, chipping and putting. I mean, he wears out the practice greens,” Nicklaus said. “And I think that the effort he has put into it has been rewarded.”
Donald tied for seventh at The Memorial Tournament that Nicklaus hosts. It was his 10th consecutive top 10 worldwide, and it went a long way toward answering critics who still did not want to accept Donald as the world No. 1. Woods occupied that position for so long that too many people began to associate No. 1 in the world with the kind of accomplished Woods produced, from 14 career majors to at least five wins a year. No one in this generation has come close to that. With Woods out of the picture _ he missed four months in the heart of the season with leg injuries _ the No. 1 ranking became a game of musical chairs. Westwood, then Kaymer, then Westwood again, then Donald. Westwood, like Donald, was criticized for not having won a major. But they played the best golf against the best fields over the longest period of time. And the way Donald finished out the year, no one was doubting him any more. “By the way,” Geoff Ogilvy said at the Tour Championship in September as Donald walked by. “There’s no question who’s No. 1 in the world.”
The majors turned out to be Donald’s lone regret in a magnificent season. He won the Barclays Scottish Open, shortened to 54 holes because of the incessant rain at Castle Stuart. But after his top-10 streak ended at the U.S. Open with a tie for 45th, it got even worse for Donald at The Open Championship when he missed the cut at Royal St. George’s. He ended his major season with a tie for eighth in the PGA Championship, then did enough right in the FedEx Cup playoffs to at least give himself a chance to claim the FedEx Cup and its $10 million payoff. Donald was ranked No. 4 going into the Tour Championship, but three shots behind going into the final round, he had to settle for a tie for third. Donald holed a birdie putt on the last hole, however, that proved critical. That birdie was worth an additional $134,667, enough to push him past Simpson atop the PGA Tour money list. Neither player planned to play the PGA Tour the rest of the year, although those plans changed _ first by Simpson, then by Donald.
With a chance to win the money title _ which might be the difference in voting for PGA Tour player of the year _ Simpson decided to play the McGladrey Classic at Sea Island, part of the Fall Series designed mainly for players simply trying to earn their cards for next year. Simpson opened with a 63, and before he could finish his second round, Donald decided to enter Disney in the final tournament of the year. Simpson played well enough all week to get into a playoff at Sea Island, losing to Ben Crane when he missed a 3-foot par putt on the second extra hole. Even so, he built a $363,029 lead over Donald, meaning that Donald at the very least would have to finish no worse than in a two-way tie for second. Donald had just returned home to Chicago after playing four consecutive tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Still, he had a commanding lead in the Race to Dubai on the European Tour, and he could not afford to pass up the chance to become the first to win official money titles on golf’s two biggest tours. Donald had not played Disney since 2003. This would require his best effort, and he did even better than that.
The PGA Tour, trying to capitalize on rare drama in the Fall Series, paired Donald and Simpson together the opening two rounds. They had the same score and wound up paired again on Saturday, again posting the same score. It wasn’t doing them much good, however, for they were five shots out of the lead going into the final round. Even if Donald got that two-way tie for second, Simpson was close enough to him that it probably wouldn’t matter. And when they made the turn on Sunday, Simpson rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the ninth hole. Not only was he two shots ahead of Donald, Simpson suddenly had a very good chance of winning the tournament. Then came perhaps the greatest stretch of holes Donald has played in his life. In what he later described as a “do-or-die” moment, Donald ran off six straight birdies for a 30 on the back nine and a closing 64 to win the tournament by two shots. Everything came wrapped up in one special box _ his second win of the year, as many as anyone on the PGA Tour; the Vardon Trophy; the money title; and little doubt who was player of the year. For his efforts, Donald posed with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, a Disney tradition. He has more significant trophies on his mantle. He could not think of a greater achievement than that Sunday in Orlando, Florida, because of everything that was at stake and how he delivered the best clutch golf of his career. “The goal was to win. Nothing was really going to be good enough other than that,” Donald said. “I think this is probably one of the most satisfying wins of my career just because of that. It’s just knowing that I had to do it, and being able to do it … it’s very, very special.”
His work wasn’t over. Donald missed the next six weeks because his wife was expecting their second child. That kept him out of the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, a big event for someone like McIlroy to make a move. The kid won twice, though one of those tournaments was against a limited, world-class field at the Shanghai Masters, the inaugural event was not sanctioned and did not count toward the money list. McIlroy tied for fourth at the HSBC Champions and won the USB Hong Kong Open to keep alive slim hopes of unseating Donald in the Race to Dubai. But he ran out of energy in the season-ending Dubai World Championship and tied for 11th, allowing Donald his unprecedented double. It should be noted that Woods would have won the money title on both tours five times but never took up European Tour membership or played the minimum tournaments required to be a member. Donald played 25 times between the two tours, and on two occasions played four straight weeks while crossing the ocean. “It’s not easy to be a member of both tours and do what I’ve done,” Donald said. “To be the first is very special, and I think it’s probably my greatest achievement this year.”