With a chance to make a big splash by beating Tiger Woods and winning his first major title, the Englishman instead faded into the background at the PGA Championship on Sunday. While Woods was hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy, Donald scuffled to a three-way tie for third place.
'I felt like I played OK today,' said Donald, who shot a 2-over 74. 'I really didn't feel like I played badly, and I'll learn from this and be a stronger player after.'
There's only one problem. Donald has said things like that before.
At 28, in his fifth year on tour, he is eager to be in that elite group of players considered the very best at what they do. Tiger. Phil Mickelson. Retief Goosen. Ernie Els. Vijay Singh. But until this spring, he was little more than another young, underachiever.
Oh, sure, he won an NCAA title at nearby Northwestern in 1999 and led Britain and Ireland to victory in the Walker Cup two years later. He's also played on a Ryder Cup team.
But until he won the Honda Classic in March, his only PGA Tour victory was the Southern Farm Bureau Classic in 2002, which was held opposite the Tour Championship and shortened to 54 holes because of rain.
After winning the Honda, Donald said he needed an attitude adjustment. If he wanted to be as good as Woods, he needed to start believing he was. While it didn't show at the Masters or either Open, he finally seemed to have found a formula that worked this week.
He had a share of the lead after both the second and third rounds to earn a Sunday pairing with Woods. Never mind that Woods was 11-0 at majors when he had at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
'This is where I want to be,' Donald said Saturday. 'This is what I need to do if I want to realize that dream and try to become the best player in the world.'
While Mike Weir and Adam Scott got off to quick starts, it was Donald who had the best chance to put pressure on Woods.
Instead, he quickly became the latest player to get lost in Woods' wake.
Bogey-free Friday and Saturday, he was birdieless on Sunday.
'Me being 1-over through six and he was 4-under, that was the difference,' Donald said.
Donald's trouble started on the par-4 No. 4, when his tee shot landed in a muddy divot. His next shot landed in rough behind the green. He chipped out, but the ball died when it hit the green. He still had a chance to save par, but his putt hit the back edge of the cup and rimmed out.
The bogey was his first in 40 holes, going back to the first round.
Birdie putts on the next two holes lipped out, too. By the time they made the turn, Woods was five strokes ahead and on his way to his 12th major title.
'It's a little deflating,' Donald said. 'Had those went in, it might have been a different story.'
The worst was on No. 6. Though Donald was in rough off the tee again, he punched out and landed on the green next to Woods. They both had 40-footers, with Donald going first. His putt looked good, but it hit the back of the cup and banged out.
Woods went next and drained his.
'That would have been a huge boost to me,' Donald said. 'If I had snuck in a birdie there, that might have got me going a little bit.'
After another bogey on 10, Donald played the rest of the round solidly. But he wasn't as aggressive as he needed to be playing from behind, and couldn't make up any ground.
Not even the hometown support could help.
Donald still lives in Chicago, and he was greeted all week with cheers of 'Go, Northwestern!' 'Go, Wildcats' or, simply, 'LUUUKE!' That's the kind of reception usually reserved for guys like Woods or Mickelson.
But Donald needs more of Woods' game than his gallery.
'I feel like I played pretty solidly considering this was my first real time in contention, playing the last group on Sunday,' he said. 'Even though I shot 74, I felt like I played a lot better. I'm hopefully going to come back with encouragement and know that if I get in that position again, I'm not going to hit bad shots.
'I'm going to hit good, solid shots, and hopefully a few more putts will drop.'
Until then, Donald's dream of being among the best will stay just that.