Donald earns respect with Transitions win
Sunday, March 18, 2012
PALM HARBOR, Fla. - It’s your serve, Master Rory.
Luke Donald seized back the No. 1 ranking he’d vacated for Rory McIlroy a few weeks ago while Donald chilled at home and McIlroy hoisted a trophy at the Honda Classic. On Sunday, once again showing his penchant for the big moment, Donald closed with a bogey-free, 5-under 66, then birdied the first hole of a four-man playoff at Innisbrook Resort’s stout Copperhead course.
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He left with pretty much everything: The trophy, the big cardboard check for $990,000, re-energized confidence, his top ranking . . . and hopefully a dosage of hard-earned respect he felt was due his way.
The ranking had only been gone for a few weeks after he’d held it for 273 days, mind you, but late Sunday, his victory secured, Donald talked candidly as if McIlroy’s ascension somehow left him underappreciated, undervalued and in a way, almost written off. Sure, his 2012 season was off to a slow start, but it’s not as if he’d gone completely missing. Fodder for extra motivation? You bet.
One triumph by McIlroy, golf’s promising new Boy Wonder, and suddenly, all of Donald’s high accomplishments from 2011 seemingly were swept away.
When the 22-year-old McIlroy made his move two weeks ago, becoming the second-youngest No. 1, the 34-year-old Donald classily invited him “to enjoy the view.” (Sunday night, in a tweet congratulating Donald, McIlroy retorted, “I enjoyed it while it lasted.”) And when the two see each other in a quieter moment at The Bear’s Club in West Palm Beach as each readies for his first major of the season, it’s Donald now who has regained the mental edge. A quiet, private man, Donald does not starve for extra attention, but Sunday night, it was clear his regained status in the golf universe was something that definitely mattered.
“I think people saw my last year, or thought that my last year was maybe a little bit more of a . . . not a fluke, but you know, I don't think many people thought I could do that all over again this year,” he said. “You know, hopefully I can prove them wrong.”
Sunday was a nice start. The only way to regain his No. 1 ranking was to win, and when he absolutely HAS to do that, well, Donald is starting to build a pretty nice track record. He needed to defeat fellow Englishman Lee Westwood in a playoff last spring at the BMW PGA to become top player in the world, just as he showed up to Disney World five months ago needing a victory to hold off Webb Simpson for the PGA Tour’s money title. Done and done. European Tour money title? Got that one, too.
On Sunday, a wild one at that, having climbed into the mix with a five-birdie barrage in seven holes, Donald sealed the deal in the playoff on the Copperhead’s difficult final hole. Jim Furyk, Sang-Moon Bae and Robert Garrigus all hit good drives. Donald’s was OK, too, but the shortest of the four, and sitting in the right rough. Donald jumped on a 7-iron from 159 yards to the uphill putting surface , his ball spinning to rest 6 feet below the hole. ("It was one of those shots that just came off right," Donald said.) After (in order) Furyk, Bae and Garrigus all missed birdie attempts, the stage was Donald’s, and he did not disappoint. Before Donald even took his putter back, Garrigus had taken off his hat and stepped forward to congratulate the tournament’s new champion. It was Garrigus who’d had the best chance of the other three, his marker just a few inches from Donald’s, but he missed on the high side, and everyone pretty much knew then this was a done deal. The last thing Donald reminded himself? That he’s been the best putter on Tour the last three seasons. He just needed to believe.
“If I made mine,” said Garrigus, “he might have missed his – first one in – but you never know, (he’s) one of the best players in the world. He probably wasn't going to miss that putt, but that's the way I was thinking: if I make this, he might miss his . . . didn’t happen.”
Not on this day. Not with this guy. All told, Donald has won five times around the world since the start of last season, collecting some nice trophies and several hefty wheel barrows filled with varied currencies from all over the globe. Neither he nor his game are very flashy, and maybe the fact he lives inside the top 10 whenever and wherever he plays (he has 23 top 10s in 43 starts since the beginning of 2010) makes some simply take him for granted.
He’s also realistic enough to know he’s not going to move the needle with fans and viewers the way Tiger and Rory do. Not yet, anyway, and he’s pretty much fine with that. At times, it can work to his benefit.
“I think so, in the long run, yes, there probably is an advantage to me,” he said. ”I can kind of go about my business and not have to deal with as much as those two are dealing with.”
But hey, a little more appreciation for his sustained excellence might be nice. Maybe a green jacket in a couple of weeks, in a little Georgia town where the talk will be consumed by the names Tiger, Rory and Phil, might help nudge that along.
Don’t think it can happen? That’s OK. Luke Donald does, and for him, that’s plenty enough.