MARANA, Ariz. – Luke Donald had only two wins around the world in the last five years, so not many would have given him a snowball’s chance in Arizona of winning the Match Play Championship.
Turns out he was more unbeatable than anyone in the 13-year history of the tournament.
When he polished off Martin Kaymer on the 16th hole Sunday, Donald became the first player to go an entire week without trailing in any match. He played only 89 holes in six matches, another record, and led after 81 of them. And he was so dominant he became the first player to win any golf tournament without ever playing the 18th hole.
Ultimately, all that mattered to Donald was simply winning.
“To come here and beat the top 63 players in the world is very gratifying,” Donald said after his 3-and-2 victory. “It’s been an amazing week. I had a lot of good things happen – made a bunch of birdies, never trailed in a match. Kind of one of those weeks where a lot of things went my way.”
On a bizarre day in the high desert, which began with snow covering the fairways and featured a 10-minute delay when sleet coated the fourth fairway, Donald spoiled Kaymer’s rise to No. 1 in the world with a victory that was a long time coming.
It had been five years since he last won on American soil. A year ago, Donald had 10 finishes in the top three with only one trophy to show for it, against a weak field at the Madrid Masters. But with a flawless short game that stacks up to anyone at the moment, Donald picked up his first World Golf Championship and moved to a career-best No. 3 in the world.
“My goal every year is to win,” said Donald, who made 32 birdies this week. “It’s a long time since I’ve tried to play for money. I felt like I hadn’t won my fair share for as good a player as I felt I was and could be. It was frustrating to me.
“To come here and compete against the best players in the world and win the trophy is very gratifying.”
The consolation prize for Kaymer was going to No. 1, which he assured by reaching the championship match. The 26-year-old German becomes only the 14th player to reach the top.
“It was a very good week for me,” Kaymer said. “Of course, I was hoping to win today. I was trying everything I could. I just didn’t play as good as the last few days. And the way Luke plays, even a decent round isn’t enough.”
The match was all square going to the back nine when Donald made a marvelous up-and-down from the waste area short of the 10th green to avoid falling behind for the first time all week. He won the next two holes, and Kaymer couldn’t catch him.
Matt Kuchar defeated Bubba Watson in the consolation match and will go to No. 10 in the world.
The next world ranking will be Kaymer, Lee Westwood, Donald and Graeme McDowell. It’s the first time since March 15, 1992, that the top four spots have been occupied by Europeans.
“We’ve really had a purple patch on world golf,” Donald said. “Having Lee become No. 1 a few months ago, now Martin No. 1, obviously Graeme has been playing great, and to make a jump like this … whether I deserve No. 3 in the world, I don’t know. But certainly in terms of my work ethic and wanting it, then I do deserve it.”
This Match Play Championship will stand out for reasons beyond golf.
A late winter storm dusted Dove Mountain with nearly an inch of snow, and the fairways were blankets of white in the morning. Donald looked out his hotel room and suggested on Twitter that a snowball fight determine who had honors on the first tee.
“It was definitely a shock,” Donald said.
The snow had melted when they teed off, although dark clouds on the horizon loomed. Sleet began falling when the championship match reached the third green, and play was stopped when sleet covered the fourth fairway.
“Do we have to keep playing?” Kaymer asked chief referee Mark Russell.
Kaymer, who purchased a snood to wear around his neck, pulled it up over his mouth and looked like a real Western gunslinger (except for the pattern of flies on fish hooks). Donald took out his blue-and-white umbrella and crouched beneath it.
After about 10 minutes, when the fairways turned from white back to green, play resumed.
Donald seized on the moment. Already 1 up from his 18-foot birdie on the par-5 second, he watched Kaymer hit a fade over the bunker to about 7 feet, then answered with a shot into 2 feet for a conceded birdie. Kaymer missed, and Donald was 2 up.
On the next hole, Kaymer pulled his drive into the desert and fell another hole down.
Donald three-putted for bogey from below the ridge to lose his first hole, and Kaymer squared the match at the turn with a birdie on the eighth and a bogey on No. 9, where Donald hit his approach into a desert bush and had to return to his original spot in the fairway.
The turning point might have been No. 10.
Kaymer had all the momentum and blistered a tee shot down the middle, while Donald went from a scrubby lie in the desert to a waste area short of the green. Donald, however, blasted out to 3 feet for a conceded par.
“I think he’s probably the best in the world in the short game at the moment,” Kaymer said. “I played with Phil Mickelson a few times and it is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke. Wherever he is, you know that he will get up-and-down.”
Donald took the lead on the 11th by making an 8-foot birdie putt as Kaymer missed his birdie from just inside 6 feet, and Donald regained all the momentum on the next hole when Kaymer came up short into the sand and took bogey.
Donald went 3 up on the 15th when Kaymer missed a birdie putt from inside 4 feet, and the “Germanator” conceded the match on the 16th when he failed to hole a 30-foot birdie putt.
The longest match all week for Donald came in the second round, when he beat Edoardo Molinari on the 17th hole.
Tiger Woods held the previous record for fewest holes at 112 in 2003 when it was a 36-hole final. Had it been an 18-hole final that year, Woods would have played 92 holes – still three more than Donald.