ATLANTA – Luke Donald is unlike any other No. 1 player in golf over the last two decades.
No, he still hasn’t won a major.
What sets Donald apart from Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer most recently, from Tiger Woods for an entire decade, and from Vijay Singh and David Duval during their brief stay at the top, is the way he hits the ball.
In an era of extra large off the tee, Donald still wears a medium.
He is No. 147 in driving distance, and while Donald isn’t exactly a peashooter, no one will ever talk about how he can overpower any golf course except for the Par 3 Course at Augusta National.
The only numbers that matter, however, is that he has been No. 1 in the world longer than anyone else this year. He is No. 1 in Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average. He is No. 1 on the European Tour money list and No. 2 on the PGA Tour money list, with a chance to become the first player to win money titles on both sides of the Atlantic.
And along with three wins this year, he has finished out of the top 10 in only five of the 20 tournaments he has played this year.
In some respects, he has become an inspiration to those who don’t fall out of bed and crack 300-yard drives.
“Getting to No. 1, a lot of people wouldn’t have thought I could get there with my kind of a game,” Donald said. “I’m more of a traditional player. That’s kind of my legacy right now, that I’ve been able to get to No. 1 without being a modern-day player. Through hard work and a little bit of thought, I’ve been able to do it.”
Mark Wilson, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour this year who is No. 132 in driving distance, has been paying attention to his limitations for years. He drew inspiration from Zach Johnson winning the Masters in 2007, when he laid up on the all the par 5s; from Jim Furyk winning the FedEx Cup last year and reaching No. 2 in the world when Woods was at his peak; and most recently, from Donald.
“I remember there was talk 10 years ago how there’s no way a Justin Leonard or a Luke Donald or a Mark Wilson could be No. 1 in the world because they don’t hit it far enough,” Wilson said. “I’ve gotten really mature in the last 12 months to work more on my wedges and realize that’s where the game ultimately lies.
“It is an inspiration to see Luke at No. 1 in the world. He’s always at the top of the leaderboard.”
There’s no reason to think that cannot continue, even if the traditional game is becoming less common. Power will always have an advantage in golf. It was like that for Bobby Jones and for Jack Nicklaus. John Daly made power golf appealing 20 years ago. Woods refined it.
It’s becoming harder to find a promising young player who doesn’t smash it.
“Most of the guys you see coming out now, they all bomb it,” said Dustin Johnson, who does just that. “It seems like that’s kind of a trend now. I don’t know any guys that have come out in the last couple years that were short hitters that are at the top of the PGA Tour.”
The mistake can be chasing after distance.
Matteo Manassero, the 18-year-old from Italy who already has won twice on the European Tour, talks about trying to add distance, even though he has spent his young career making sure his short game is immaculate because it has to be. It has worked so far.
“I chase it every week,” said David Toms, whose 13 career tour wins include a major. “It seems like I ask for another driver every week and always go back to the same one.”
The year after winning the PGA Championship, Toms played the opening round at Hazeltine with Woods and Ernie Els, two power hitters that made him question what he was doing out there. Then again, this has gone on for years, and Toms has lost track of how many times his wife got tired of listening to it. Her message: He’s done all right with what he has.
“It was funny, I had just gotten back from Boston when I played with Bubba the first or second day,” Toms said. “My son asked me something about his golf swing. I said, ‘Don’t worry about your swing, you need to go to the weight room.’ And that’s when she went off on me again.”
The danger of chasing distance is ruining what already was working. Donald tried that himself in 2007, when he was obsessed with more distance to the point it affected a classic swing. He also wonders if it contributed to a wrist injury a year later that led to surgery and kept him out of the Ryder Cup. Those were lean times.
He might not hit it far, but he hits it far enough. And it doesn’t hurt that his work ethic is as strong as anyone in golf.
Few can appreciate what Donald has done better than Justin Leonard, who turned pro just as professional golf was becoming all about power. Leonard went nine years without missing a Tour Championship. He won 12 times, including the British Open. He lost in a playoff at two other majors and was the 54-hole leader in another.
But he never chased length. He went to Butch Harmon to simplify his game and returned to Randy Smith for familiarity.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Leonard said Tuesday. “I’m not trying to hit the ball shorter. But I’m not on this Phil Mickelson quest to see how far I can possibly hit the ball. What’s another 5 or 10 yards going to do for me? Yeah, it can make a difference. But I know my game is to put the ball in the fairway, play low-stress golf, rely on my wedge game and putting, and course management.”
It’s not an advantage over guys who hit it forever.
As Donald has shown, it still works.