At Conway Farms, Donald hopes for signs of old self

Luke Donald watches a shot during The Barclays.

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – There are home games and then there are home home games. Luke Donald has the latter this week. He’s not only back in his adopted home area in suburban Chicago, he’s playing a PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event at his longtime home course of Conway Farms.

And he’ll be the first person at the BMW Championship to tell you he needs that kind of familiar setting. World No. 1 for parts of 2011 and ’12, Donald is in the midst of a substandard season, what with no victories and just four top 10s. By contrast, he had two victories, two seconds and a pair of thirds among his 14 top 10s during his 2011 Player of the Year season.

What’s more, though his short game remains one of the game’s best, his ball-striking has been off. He ranks 167th on Tour in greens in regulation and 161st in ball-striking, a far cry from 41st and 86th in those categories, respectively, two years ago. The performance prompted him to change swing coaches last month, moving to Chuck Cook, who has coached five players to seven major titles.

“I guess if there was ever a year to struggle, to come into an event needing a big week, this is a good one to come to,” Donald, ranked 54th in FedEx points and needing to reach the top 30 to advance to next week’s Tour Championship, said Tuesday. “Hopefully (being a member for more than a decade) is an advantage for me.”

The Englishman, who played at nearby Northwestern, uses words such as “disappointing” and “frustrating” to describe his play in 2013.

“It’s been very hard this year,” he said. “But I feel pretty good about where things are headed, and I’m excited about the future. This year I still have time to rescue it. It takes one good week to kind of rescue a year.”

Donald, 35, said he realized his ball-striking wasn’t good enough after playing the U.S. Open final round with Justin Rose. Donald first sought out Sean Foley, coach of Tiger Woods and Rose among others, but Foley said he couldn’t give the time required because of his heavy workload and recommended Cook. Donald said he’ll continue to work with longtime coach Pat Goss on his short game, considered one of golf’s best.

“You look at my major record, it’s just not what it should be,” said Donald, who has eight top 10s in 42 majors, the best a couple of T-3s in 2005-06. “I feel like I need to be a little bit more consistent in my long game, hence the switch.”

Donald worked with Cook two hours at the PGA, 1 1/2 days the week after and then three days last week. Donald has tended to slide his hips and legs along the target line and square the clubface with his hands. Hence, Cook said he’s trying to get him to keep his hands quiet, round out his backswing and rotate his body into the ball to improve accuracy.

“I’m a quick learner and I think I should be able to get most of it down by the end of the year,” Donald said.

The hard part of the switch was telling Goss, his coach in college and after, about his intentions. But he said Goss “understood it perfectly.”

“Outside of telling my brother I didn’t want him to caddie for me anymore, it was probably the second-toughest decision I’ve ever had to make on the golf course,” Donald said. “But ... I want to feel a little bit more in control of my ball when I’ve over it.”

Being at home should help. Though Conway Farms is “not a very difficult course” by Donald’s thinking, he did his best to steer the Western Golf Association here when it was looking for a regular home after it decided to leave Cog Hill, the tournament’s regular site since 1991.

Donald held the course record until Conway was lengthened a couple of years ago.

“They Luke-proofed it,” he cracked.

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