Short-game prowess guides Donald’s ascent

Luke Donald

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The top three finishes at the 1999 NCAA men’s championship were Luke Donald, Charles Howell III and Ryuji Imada.

On Sunday, a dozen years later, Donald won the BMW PGA Championship in England and became No. 1 in the Official Golf World Ranking. The same day, Imada should have won the HP Byron Nelson Championship for his second PGA Tour victory, but he bogeyed three of his final five holes and finished a shot back.

Moral of the story: High-level success often doesn’t happen overnight in professional golf. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard are exceptions. Sometimes it takes 12 years. For years, the peak age in golf has been around 32.

Donald is 33 and excels week in and week out. The Englishman has finished no worse than 10th on the PGA Tour in his past seven starts, and that doesn’t include Sunday’s win at Wentworth. He ended last year’s Tour season with two runner-up finishes in his last three tournaments.

Donald has ascended mostly because of his short game. If he doesn’t have the world’s best short game, then I don’t know who does. 

He ranks first in scoring, fifth in total putting and third in scrambling on the 2011 Tour. Last year was more of the same: first in sand saves, third in total putting, fourth in scoring. On top of that, he has become an accurate driver, ranking 33rd in fairways hit this year.   

I don’t know if Donald, who has won three times apiece on the PGA Tour and in Europe, is the best player in the world. I don’t know if anyone is, if anyone has separated enough to be worthy of such a title. But Donald clearly has been the most consistent in the past several months. Besides those high finishes, he has 21 consecutive rounds of par or better, the longest current streak on Tour.

“Luke’s game has come a long way,” Jack Nicklaus said Tuesday at his Memorial Tournament.

Nicklaus knows why, first hand. He has seen Donald working on his short game for endless hours at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla.

“There isn't anybody who spends more time working on his golf game than I've seen in Luke Donald,” Nicklaus said. “He spends his time chipping and putting, chipping and putting, and I mean, he wears out the practice greens. We’ve got some really nice practice areas down there. There are several greens you can practice on. He wears them out. The effort he has put into it has been rewarded.”

When Tom Watson was young, his father Ray, an accomplished amateur, suggested he shorten his swing. Watson’s instructor, Stan Thirsk, told the kid not to listen to Dad, that a long swing would benefit him as he become older and less flexible.

You might say Thirsk was brilliant.

Two years ago, Watson lost a British Open playoff at age 59. Sunday, the 61-year-old became the oldest player to win a Champions Tour major, the Senior PGA Championship.

It’s no easy feat at that age beating players some 11 years younger. But Watson has kept in shape – golf shape. He stretches regularly. He says if you don’t have much time before a round, chose stretching over hitting balls as a warmup. After Watson stretches, he goes to the range and starts his practice session by hitting 3-irons.

Others with long, flowing swings have excelled at an advanced age, as well. Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Julius Boros come to mind.

“His ability to coil, and the flexibility of his body to fully wind up and be able to, without effort, to finish his backswing has been to me the secret of his game,” said Nicklaus, a Watson rival from yesteryear. “As well as his ability around the green. He's struggled off and on with his putter, but his putter obviously is not a big problem right now.”

Watson always has had a quick swing. But it’s his swing, one he’s comfortable with, one with terrific rhythm.

“He does a beautiful job of controlling that tempo,” Nicklaus said.

Defending Memorial champion Justin Rose has eight top-25 finishes on the PGA Tour this year, including three top 10s. The results would be better if not for one club in his bag: the putter.

Rose has improved his iron play, reaching third in greens in regulation. But he lags at 119th in total putting.

“If I would have been half decent on the greens, I would have definitely won either Bay Hill, Transitions or Augusta,” Rose said. “I'm playing beautifully. I put myself in position to have some good weeks like that, and it's just that little bit of making the right putt at the right time.”

Rose did so last year around this time. He sandwiched a pair of victories around another chance at the Travelers Championship, where he led after three rounds but closed with 75.

“Putting is confidence,” Rose said. “It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. What comes first: seeing the ball go in or believing you're putting well and then seeing the ball go in? I'm just trying to be patient with it, and I believe I'm a good putter. I really do.”

Rose actually putted with his eyes closed for a few holes at Bay Hill. He says he has done that at other times when the mood strikes.

Payne Stewart took practice strokes with his eyes closed when he won the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He did so for the purpose of feel.

“It is kind of sad to think my best putting has been with my eyes closed,” Rose said. “But there is something to be said for that, in terms of just boiling it down and keeping it simple. When you try too hard to make putts, it's like holding a bar of soap: The tighter you squeeze, the more lucid it becomes. 

“I think (closed-eyes putting) was a good lesson for me to realize the important things in putting aren't necessarily stroke, alignment and technique. It’s more of the artistic, seeing the ball going in the hole.”

Jason Day withdrew from the Memorial to rest up and prepare for the U.S. Open. Based on recent results, the 23-year-old Australian figures to be a threat at Congressional.

Day tied for second at the Masters, ninth at the Heritage and sixth at The Players before finishing fifth Sunday at Nelson. At the last, he closed with 67 on a day when the scoring average was 73.16.

He led the Nelson field with 22 birdies but was held back by four holes of double bogey or worse.

Unfortunately for some Tour players, Monday qualifying for last week’s HP Byron Nelson Championship fell on the same day as British Open qualifying at nearby Gleneagles in Plano, Texas. 

Hindsight being clear, the Tour should have moved the Nelson qualifier to Sunday, as will be the case in Memphis to avoid a conflict with June 6 U.S. Open sectional qualifying.

“It was an unfortunate oversight because the British qualifying is normally the Monday after the Nelson when there’s no four-spot qualifying for Colonial,” Tour veteran Bob Estes said, “but the Nelson and Colonial were switched this year.”

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