Remember when Luke Donald disease was a bad thing? When others dismissed the Englishman’s uncanny consistency as a weakness and the term “He’s a nice little player” was delivered with more than a hint of selective subjectivity?
On Sunday across the appropriately named Earth Course in Dubai, Donald completed his historic climb to the top of golf’s heap, carding yet another top-10 finish – that’s 20 and counting in 2011 for those keeping track – to become the first member to win both the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles in a single season.
Not bad for a lightly recruited artsy type whose game didn’t appear long or straight enough to ever be a world beater. It’s why Stanford passed on Donald back in the late 1990s, and how, in a fortuitous twist, he ended up at Northwestern with Pat Goss.
“Stanford made a mistake in not recruiting him,” said Goss, who was beginning his second year as Northwestern’s golf coach in 1997 when he extended a scholarship to Donald without having ever seen him hit a golf shot. “We’d had a lot of success with English players, but if Stanford would have done a better job of recruiting him he would have been there.”
Goss’ good fortune has resulted in a 14-year climb that few outside of “Team Luke” could have imagined just three years ago. With apologies to Donald, one could hardly blame conventional wisdom for its oversight.
At the end of 2007 Donald had six full seasons on the PGA Tour yet just two victories and three top 10s in 20 Grand Slam starts. The only statistic one needed to know about Donald as ’07 was drawing to a close was 177th and 35th, his driving distance and accuracy rank, respectively.
In short, Donald’s career had featured far too little bomb and too much gouge.
From the ashes of that reality, however, was born the underpinnings of Donald’s climb to the top of golf’s global peak.
In December 2007 Donald and Goss convened a summit at the Englishman’s Jupiter, Fla., home with the idea that, as Goss recalled, “the goals needed to be revised.”
In a classic cause-and-effect twist, Donald’s drive to become world No. 1 and to hit the ball farther had conspired against him on many levels.
“His fundamentals had gotten worse,” Goss said. “I didn’t do a good enough job of pushing him in hindsight. He talked about how much he tried to hit it further. I’ve never thought he didn’t hit it far enough.
“Being No. 1 has never been the goal. One of the keys to becoming No. 1 in the world had to be to stop trying to be No. 1 in the world.”
Fate seemed to take care of the rest of the puzzle in 2008 when Donald injured his left wrist while playing out of the rough during the final round of the U.S. Open. The cost of the injury was more than six months on the “DL,” a missed Ryder Cup and countless hours chipping and putting. It’s all he had. Turns out it’s all he needed.
Donald’s extended stays on The Bear’s Club practice greens have now become part of his lore, so much so even Jack Nicklaus, a member of the south Florida club with Donald, took notice.
“He spends his time chipping and putting, chipping and putting, and I mean, he wears out the practice greens,” Nicklaus said. “I think that the effort he has put into it has been rewarded.-
For those who fixate on Donald’s perceived lack of distance, Goss points out his man’s jump in driving accuracy from 120th last year to 57th in 2011 and his stranglehold on the new strokes-gained putting statistic and three-putt avoidance (he had just 15 three-putts on Tour this season).
When Donald finally returned to the fray in 2008 he was no longer handicapped by the notion that he was a welterweight trying to make his way in a heavyweight world.
In 2010 he posted 14 top 10s and, according to Goss, his victory against Martin Kaymer in this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play finale “started the whole year.”
The WGC title lifted Donald to third in the world and he completed his ascent to No. 1 in style, knocking off then-No. 1 Lee Westwood in a playoff at the BMW PGA Championship. Five months later he wrapped up the PGA Tour money title with another walk-off at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.
A player whose name had become synonymous with quiet achievement, some even suggested underachievement, delivered both style and substance in 2011.
“He played some historic rounds under unique situations,” Goss said. “The playoff at the BMW, it was really an amazing opportunity, similar to Disney. He’s overplayed at that point, but with that situation to capture the money title it is mindboggling.”
Speaking of mindboggling, Donald’s year in Cliff’s Note form has included four victories, top-10 finishes in 80 percent of his global starts and a commanding 2.29-point lead over No. 2 Rory McIlroy in the World Golf Ranking.
“There was a lot of lean years there for a while where I wasn't winning, felt kind of frustrated on the course, wasn't getting a lot out of it,” Donald said this week in Dubai. “You've just got to keep believing that at some point, it's going to be your time.”
Fitting that he would complete his transatlantic earnings double with a third-place showing in Dubai, another top 10 for a man who was once strangely haunted by such consistency. Luke Donald disease has never looked so good.