When the soft-spoken Englishman made his way onto the PGA Tour he was thoughtful, athletic, driven and level-headed. But no one would have confused the amateur artisan for Ben Crenshaw. That is to say, at least statistically, the package was a gallon of milk short of a full bag.
But, as his swing coach Pat Goss points out, Donald is nothing if not structured. He has lists for everything, Goss said on Thursday at Muirfield Village. The first item on Donalds list must have been improving his putting.
Each year since 04 Donalds play on and around the greens has improved dramatically. From 83rd (2005) to 22nd (2006) to eighth (2008) to first this year in putting average, his climb in the only stat that seems to count has been dramatic, if not dogged.
On Thursday at cool, windswept Muirfield Village, the man with the humble putting pedigree proved again that, like Ben Hogans golf swing, the putting stroke is found in the dirt, not the DNA, with his 20-putt, 8-under 64.
That red-card haul was three strokes better than his closest challenger. The thing is Jim Furyk, among a group of four at 5 under, wasnt sure he could have done much better, and Tour pros can always do better.
But then, when your frontrunner runs in 105 feet of one putts ' only two of which were longer than 15 feet (25 and 20 feet at Nos. 10 and 16, respectively) ' theres not a lot of room for improvement.
It was a couple of decent-sized ones (putts), but nothing major, Donald wildly understated.
Donalds caddie, his brother Christian, was a tad more exuberant between bites from a red Twizzler. Unbelieveable. He just loves these greens, Christian Donald smiled.
The Tour record for fewest putts for a round is 18 held by six players. But by and large those Herculean efforts occurred on golf courses with greens that are not nearly as sinister as Muirfield Villages.
There might not be as much slope as Augusta, but on a flat putt, they're probably quicker than Augusta, Donald said. Confidence on the greens breeds confidence. You keep making more putts. I think putting is very mental. Once you feel like you're a good putter, then it becomes easier.
This from a man who was more Julia Roberts than Loren Roberts with the putter when he bolted Northwestern.
Donalds short-stick transformation began right out of college, where he was a perennial contender due, largely, to his ballstriking and athleticism.
In college and amateur golf he hit it so much better than everyone else he didnt need to work on his putting, said Goss, Donalds coach at Northwestern. But on Tour he realized what carried him in college golf wasnt going to be good enough on Tour.
The changes were focused and gradual, like most accomplishments of any import.
Everything improved along the way. Scrambling, through the roof, putts per round, through the roof, just his entire short game has improved, said Goss.
As these things often do, the focus on Donalds short game led to less work on his ballstriking and last years wrist injury at the U.S. Open and subsequent surgery forced him to rededicate himself to the practice range.
Earlier this year Goss challenged Donald to be a two-thirds player.
Now weve gone back to ballstriking, Goss said. We want him to hit two-thirds of his fairways and two-thirds of his greens.
On Tuesday Donald and Goss worked together at Northwesterns indoor practice facility and something clicked. The session took just 45 minutes and even with a limited tune up for the Memorial, he arrived Wednesday and managed to play just nine holes and spent no time on the range, he was sharp tee to green in Round 1.
Hes also motivated this year after missing half of last season and Septembers Ryder Cup, something of a biennial rite for the young Englishman.
He watched every match from Valhalla, as painful as it may have been for a European, and texted Goss throughout the event with insight and observations. Ultimately it was the driving force through six months of rehabilitation.
He loves that event. It means the world to him, Goss said. It really drove him to improve and make sure he was a member of next years team.
Thats good news for European captain Colin Montgomerie. Ryder Cup skippers are always in need of good putters ' either of the natural or self-made variety.