SUN CITY, South Africa – Five weeks after a stunning finish at Disney World, Luke Donald returns to competition at the Nedbank Challenge refreshed and feeling his position at the top of golf’s rankings is “validated.”
The Englishman plays his first event this week since reeling off six straight birdies on the back nine of his final round to win the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic on Oct. 23 and clinch the PGA Tour money title over Webb Simpson.
Having accomplished Phase One of his mission to become the first player to top the U.S. and European money lists in the same season, Donald said that his incredible come-from-behind victory in Orlando confirmed his place as the world’s top golfer this season, despite the absence of a major title.
“It’s nice to come up with great shots and great putting and everything that went with that when you need it the most,” Donald said at Sun City on Wednesday. “I obviously had a pretty good amount of catching up to beat Webb.
“I knew I had to go there and win the tournament and obviously to reel off six birdies in a row on the back nine on Sunday was a lot of validation to how good I’ve been performing this year and the added confidence I’ve gained from all the wins I’ve had. So, it really meant a lot.”
He added his recent break allowed him to “savor” his Disney World moment, where he came from five shots back in shooting 30 over his last nine holes. He also was able to recharge his batteries at home – and celebrate the birth of his second child – ahead of a likely historic end to a groundbreaking season.
“I haven’t locked it up yet,” Donald said.
His unprecedented success on both tours can only be spoiled by Rory McIlroy, who trails Donald by a little over a million euros ($1.3 million) on the European Tour. The No. 2-ranked Northern Irishman could make the season-ending Dubai World Championship a race for the money title with a victory at the Hong Kong Open this weekend.
While South Africa’s invitation-only Nedbank Challenge has a hefty winner’s check of $1.25 million, that cash doesn’t count on the European Tour should Donald win this weekend at the Gary Player Country Club.
“We’ll see what Rory does this week and how much pressure he can put on me. I’m sure it won’t be easy. I’m sure he’ll put up a fight and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Donald said ahead of a possible Race to Dubai decider. “Usually after the break I come back feeling a lot stronger about my game.
“Obviously I would love to walk away with both money lists because that would be history. Something that nobody has ever done before.”
While Donald is certain his layoff will be a help rather than a hindrance for his final two events of the season, Sun City defending champion and No. 3-ranked Lee Westwood is still tipped to retain his title at the South African casino resort course, which favors the big-driving Westwood.
Like Donald now, Westwood arrived at Sun City last year as a majorless world No. 1 and doubted by some as a true successor to Tiger Woods.
He went some way to answering those doubters with a dominant eight-shot win at the 2010 Nedbank Challenge, but 2011 was a largely subdued season for him.
“I’ve come here to have a good week and enjoy myself,” Westwood said soon after shooting a promising 68 in Wednesday’s pro-am. It’s a great week, a 12-man field, at a golf course I enjoy playing. A great spot.
“I just like being here and trying to play well. I’ve not really set any goals for the week. Obviously I’d like to win the tournament, but not really set any goals.”
Westwood did recognize the opportunity to gather some momentum ahead of Dubai next week, however, with the Englishman set to play successive weekends on courses at which he has impressive records.
“Any good week around any golf course can kick things off and start things off,” he said.
Martin Kaymer joins Donald and Westwood in South Africa this week to give the Nedbank Challenge three of the world’s top four ranked players.
The field also includes Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, British Open champion Darren Clarke, former U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, South Korea’s Kyung-Tae Kim, Robert Karlsson, Simon Dyson, Anders Hansen, PGA Championship runner-up Jason Dufner and Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who replaced the injured Thomas Bjorn.
Schwartzel will be backed by the boisterous home crowd at Sun City as the only South African at this year’s event, but he also has to shrug off an exhausting recent schedule in which Sun City will be his seventh tournament on consecutive weekends.
“It’s been such a big year for me, I would really like to get another win. Just for myself,” Schwartzel said. “It’s been probably my best year ever but, you know, as a golfer you never stop. You always want a little bit more. And this tournament, especially, is one that I rate high.
“For a South African, to play the Nedbank is big. We’ve got a really strong field, but I don’t think it means as much to them as it would mean to a South African.”