On the other side of the world — how fitting for this globetrotter — Luke Donald received the expected news that he was the best player in the U.S. in 2011. What seemed like a formality became official Tuesday when the Englishman was named by his peers the PGA Tour Player of the Year, the denouement of a spectacular 2011 season for the No. 1 player in the world.
“That’s a great honor, obviously, to cap off what has been an amazing year for me,” Donald said in a conference call from Melbourne, where he is competing in this week’s Australian Masters.
In another anticipated decision, Keegan Bradley, who won the Byron Nelson in May and then prevailed on a wild final day at the PGA Championship, earned Rookie of the Year honors. Not a bad haul for a 25-year-old who last year on the Nationwide Tour toiled in such exotic locales as Wichita, Kansas, and Sandy, Utah. Now, he’ll begin his 2012 campaign at Kapalua.
Said Bradley, who earned $3,758,600 in his first full season on Tour: “It was an award that you can only win one time in your entire career. It was the main goal of mine to start the year, and it’s a huge honor and privilege.”
An entirely different goal fueled Donald during this breakout season. Last week in Dubai, he officially became the first member of both the PGA and European tours to top the money list in the same year. Which is another way of saying he was the best player in the world.
“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.”
In this era of titanium-denting power and on-course aggression, the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Donald has grown comfortable as an iconoclast. He doesn’t hit the ball particularly long, averaging just 284.1 yards per drive, ranking him 147th on Tour. And though he’s drastically improved his accuracy off the tee — from 120th in 2010 to 57th this year — Donald still finds the fairway only 64 percent of the time. The key to maximizing his performance is an all-world short game: eighth in scrambling, fifth in sand saves and, yes, first in the Tour’s new putting category, strokes gained. All of which is why Donald won the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, at 68.86.
“Consistency does go a long way,” he said. “I think in the past 10 or 20 years, the power game has really taken control of golf. But I think I’ve been a little bit of a breath of fresh air knowing that that’s not the only way you can be successful.”
Strangely enough, Donald’s 2011 Tour season began with a missed cut at Riviera, but then he went on a tear. Beginning in February with his resounding victory at the WGC-Accenture Match Play — where he never trailed during his six matches on his way to his first victory in the States since 2006 — he recorded nine consecutive top-10 finishes, including a playoff loss at The Heritage. He finished the season with an incredible 14 top 10s in 19 starts. None was more impressive than his final one.
In an end-of-the-year tussle with Webb Simpson for the money title, Donald made a last-minute schedule change to enter the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. Only a win would suffice. So, on Oct. 23, on the final Sunday of the PGA Tour’s regular season, Donald shot a final-round 64, surged to the top to win Disney, snatched away the Tour money title from Simpson (earning nearly $6.7 million) and all but engraved his name on the Player of the Year trophy. Other drama was settled worldwide, of course. Rory McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros and Donald all jockeyed for position last week at the Dubai World Championship, the European Tour’s season-ending cash-grab, yet that served only as the final brushstrokes of 2011’s fuller portrait, with the major-less Donald at the forefront.
Asked what he’d do for an encore, Donald said: “The glaring thing that’s off my resume is winning a major. … I think there will always be a little bit of an asterisk against my name until I win one, but I’ll be trying very hard to correct that.”
What will next season bring? Rory seems poised to seize the world stage, perhaps as soon as 2012. Tiger, as always, will be fascinating to watch. Lee Westwood will win a major . . . at some point.
And, yes, there is a clear-cut No. 1 in Luke Donald. Now with the Jack Nicklaus Award to prove it.