JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Luke Donald looks like a different player these days.
He even acts like a different player.
Consider his final hole at the Masters, where he was desperate to make birdie to keep alive his slim hopes.
Keeping his weight on the back leg to keep from falling into a fairway bunker, Donald hit a shot so perfect that it one-hopped high against the pin and ricocheted off the front of the green. Then came an impeccable chip – he’s been hitting a lot of those lately – that dropped for birdie, and the 33-year-old Englishman unleashed emotions that seem to have been bottled up his whole career.
He raised both arms, pumped them twice, roared, slammed his right fist and ripped off his visor to salute the gallery.
“It was revenge for my second shot,” Donald said Monday. “I got carried away. It was a fun moment.”
Even with the birdie, Donald eventually wound up four shots behind Charl Schwartzel in a tie for fourth with Tiger Woods and Geoff Ogilvy, who played in front of him. Even so, it was another performance that explains why Donald has risen to a career-high No. 3 in the world, and why he can go even higher when he returns this week at Hilton Head.
Donald still doesn’t win as often as he would like – six official victories, only two in the last five years – but winning starts with giving himself chances, and he has done that as well as anyone lately.
Dating to the Tour Championship, where he was runner-up to Jim Furyk by one shot, Donald has finished out of the top 10 only one time in his last nine starts. The exception was a missed cut at Riviera, where he returned after a three-month break. A week later, Donald was so dominant at the Match Play Championship that he became the first player to never trail in any of his six matches.
So what has changed?
Pat Goss, his golf coach at Northwestern who still works with him, used to see two players – a world-beater every two years at the Ryder Cup (Donald has an 8-2-1 record), and a player burdened by expectations just about everywhere else, particularly the majors.
Goss noticed something different at Augusta.
“The Masters was the first time I saw the Ryder Cup Luke,” Goss said. “He looked like a fighter, ready to go nose-to-nose. He played fearlessly. Every time he made a mistake, he really fought back.”
Donald attributes the difference to the people around him.
The toughest change was deciding toward the end of 2009 to no longer have his brother, Christian, as his caddie. He now has Jon McLaren, whom Donald says “keeps me more lighthearted.” He continues to lean on Goss as a coach, mentor and friend. The other addition was Dave Alred, a performance guru best known in rugby circles as a kicking coach for the likes of Johnny Wilkinson.
It was Alred who reminded Donald that of his 12 holes he played over par at the Masters, he bounced back with a birdie six times. Such data is now in a diary that Alred has asked Donald to keep. And it was Alred who, in an interview with the BBC last year, referred to Donald as an assassin on the golf course.
“It’s one shot, one opportunity and you need to hit right between the eyes because you don’t get a second chance,” Alred said.
Put it all together, and something is going very right for Donald.
“He has a lot of belief in what he’s doing and how he’s preparing,” Goss said.
Along the way, Donald has accepted that he will never be one of the game’s power hitters, and what he has is ample. It was after his 2006 season, when he played in the final group at a major for the first time, that he began chasing extra length.
“I thought to myself that I had to hit it further,” Donald said. “My coach never thought that. He thought I had enough in me. But week in and week out I was being outdriven, and all the bombers were winning, and I convinced myself I had to get longer. I think that’s part of the reason I got injured. It’s part of the reason my swing got in a place I didn’t like.”
Donald finally felt a pop in his wrist at the 2008 U.S. Open and wound up missing the second half of the season, along with the Ryder Cup at Valhalla. The upside to that: He still hasn’t played on a losing Ryder Cup team.
He was working his way back into shape when his best finish at a major in 2009 – a tie for fifth at the British Open – produced harsh criticism of his work ethic. An American writer, in a story published in a British newspaper, questioned his effort and motivation and referred to such players as having “Luke Donald Disease.”
“I can honestly tell you, it was the first time I saw the media affect him,” Goss said. “Most times with a negative article, he lets it pass in one ear and out the other. But this was a Sunday paper in London. He’s proud of his English heritage. And that stung. It was discouraging, because it couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
Donald has been working harder than ever, especially on his short game. He ranks No. 1 on the PGA Tour in scoring and putting, and he is No. 3 in scoring on par 5s, a testament to his wedge play.
“I think he’s probably the best in the world in the short game at the moment,” Martin Kaymer said after losing to Donald in the Match Play final. “I played with Phil Mickelson a few times and it is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke.”
If Donald had access to Twitter in Shanghai last year, when he tied for third in a World Golf Championship, he might have chuckled over a tweet from Joe Ogivlie, who was astonished to see him in contention so often.
“Does anyone know where I can get the ‘Luke Donald’ disease?”