MARANA, Ariz. – Forgive Luke Donald if he appeared a tad flummoxed following his 3-and-2 victory over Martin Kaymer in Sunday’s final bout at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. The Englishman hadn’t seen the 18th hole all week and had been pushed to Dove Mountain’s 17th hole just once, so the rocky road back to the Ritz clubhouse was a little unfamiliar.
Who would have thought that the Match Play winner, who must weather five days and six rounds, would play fewer holes (89) than the Bob Hope Classic champion (90)?
But the journey through the high Arizona desert was a Sunday stroll compared to the wilderness Donald has traversed since his last title on the PGA Tour.
The last time Donald hoisted Sunday gold, the economy was booming, Martin Kaymer was barely a blip on the European radar and Tiger Woods ruled the World Ranking with mathematical command. So if Donald seemed a bit overly relieved following his Draconian performance at Dove Mountain, it was for good reason.
“You always have doubts when you go five years without a win on the U.S. Tour . . . To come here and beat the top 63 players is very gratifying,” said Donald, whose last Tour victory was at the 2006 Honda Classic.
The way Donald performed at the year’s first World Golf Championship, he could have collected two Tour titles. For the week he birdied 32 of 89 holes, hit 74 percent of his greens in regulation, 66 percent of his fairways and one-putted a staggering 46 times. By any measure, a commanding performance.
But Donald’s greatest achievement, at least personally, was doing it against the game’s best – freshly minted world No. 1 Kaymer who completed his long-overdue ascension to the top of the World Ranking heap with his finals appearance.
“Everybody was sending me text messages saying they hope he plays Bubba (Watson) in the final, but I wanted him to play Kaymer and so did Luke,” said Pat Goss, the golf coach at Northwestern University and Donald’s swing mentor since he walked on campus in September 1997. “He wanted to play the best.”
Donald never trailed in six matches and opened a 3-up lead over the German through five blustery holes that featured a short stoppage of play on the fourth hole while officials waited for a hail storm to pass.
Not that Donald envisioned another early ending for the 18-hole final when he awoke Sunday morning to see an inch of newly fallen snow on the Dove Mountain track. For those taking early bets, Kaymer was a lock to win the WGC-Downhill Championship – no one tucks and turns like a German.
But the snow and hail melted, eventually. Donald didn’t.
Not even when Kaymer chipped away at Donald’s lead until the two were all square at the turn – the game’s two most consistent players going nine holes and accomplishing nothing – and the world No. 1 elect looked to take the lead when Donald went from a fairway bunker to a desert wash on the 10th hole.
By the time the two reached the drivable 15th the rout was on and when Kaymer failed to make birdie – the first time all week he didn’t look every bit the world No. 1 – all that was left was the long drive through the desert back to the clubhouse.
Those who suggest Kaymer backed his way into the top ranking haven’t been paying attention. His Match Play runner-up was his seventh top-10 finish since last year’s breakthrough at the PGA Championship. He’s been the world No. 1 for some time, on Sunday the ranking caught up with that reality.
“Nobody can take that away from me,” Kaymer said.
Nor can anyone ignore the European dominance atop the world order. For the first time since October 1996 there are no Americans in the top 4 in the World Golf Ranking with Donald’s move to third. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but it is the definition of a new era.
Woods’ Round 1 loss at Dove Mountain, the second time he’s been one-and-done at the Match Play, and Phil Mickelson’s Round 2 exit may have robbed the marquee of its biggest names, but it’s hard to argue that the world’s best didn’t deliver bracket-ology gold.
Not that Donald was interested in Transatlantic power shifts. Not after five years of disappointments, not after being questioned in some circles for his apparent inability to close.
For those who mused that Donald was content cashing checks, not chasing titles, the Match Play is a game changer. It’s what drove Donald and Goss back to the drawing board late in 2007.
In simplest terms, Donald was trying to be something he wasn’t – a bomber, which in turn opened the door to bad swing mechanics. So after 2007, a year in which he made it to the Tour Championship and posted two runner-up showings, he and Goss went back to basics.
That process continued through an extended and well-planned off-season after 2010 when Donald spent a month working with Goss in south Florida. On Friday, Donald referred to his action as “a work in progress.” On Sunday, it looked every bit a work of art. That he finally ended his American victory drought was just the what, not the why or how.
“(Not winning) has been in the back of his mind consistently,” Goss said. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that he’s happy finishing second. He works harder now than he ever has and those close losses were heartbreaking to him.”
On Sunday, after the hail storms had moved out of the Oro Valley and with the sun once again illuminating the sprawling layout, Donald had the look of a man who was finally comfortable in his own skin and with his own DNA.
“I’m not a modern player, I don’t hit the ball that far,” he said. “It was frustrating to me . . . There were times where I was very disappointed and very upset that I hadn't broken through, and I can forget about that now.”
What he is is a throwback. A ballstriker with distance control and the ability to move the ball in both directions with an all-world short game. What he is is the world’s third-ranked player with more grit than he’s ever been given credit for. What he is is a three-time Tour winner who is finally out of the victory desert. Now if only someone would show him where Dove Mountain’s 18th hole is.