BETHESDA, Maryland – Luke Donald hasn’t won a whole lot, just two stroke play tournaments in the last five years. And he doesn’t hit the ball that far.
Quite atypical for the No. 1 player in the world.
The 33-year-old Englishman, who is ranked 153rd on the PGA Tour in driving distance, does indeed carry the mantle of the planet’s top golfer into this week’s U.S. Open.
Some might call it a quirk of the system. Others consider it a victory for consistency over streakiness, and a triumph of precision over power.
“It’s refreshing to see that the game is not being out-powered,” defending champion Graeme McDowell said Tuesday. “His iron play has always been unbelievable, and I think that’s one of the keys. I always knew he had a great wedge game and a great short game and a putting stroke to die for, so he’s really got his game polished up and driving it a lot better, and he’s really got the whole package now.”
Donald is the fourth player to hold the top spot in the last 12 months, a revolving door made possible by Tiger Woods’ personal problems and injuries. He vaulted ahead of Lee Westwood two weeks ago by beating his countryman in a playoff at the BMW PGA Championship in England, achieving a milestone he first seriously – and perhaps overzealously – considered a possibility some five years ago.
“It probably wasn’t the right mindset, in a way,” Donald said. “I pressed too hard and didn’t let things happen and got upset at myself when things weren’t perfect. And in the last few years I’ve just tried to go back to basics about just trying to improve every day, just trying to get a little bit better at every component in my game, just seeing that there are no limits at the margin of everything I do.
“I think that’s really gotten me to No. 1. It’s been less of a thought about trying to be there, just more about going through the processes.”
There are two ways to look at Donald’s rise. He has remarkable run of top-10 finishes in 15 of his last 16 events, including stroke play and match play tournaments on both the U.S. and European tours. Does this count as a string of success, or a series of lost opportunities?
“Well, certainly if you’re not in contention, you don’t have a chance to win,” Donald said. “That’s the first goal, is to get in contention and have that chance. And I’ve obviously done a great job of that. Certainly I could look back and think that I could have turned a couple of those seconds into victories, for sure. But overall it’s been a very satisfying few months.
“I’ve played extremely well. I’ve given myself lots of opportunities and I have taken a couple of them. If I was sitting here winless, yes, it would be a different story, but I’ve picked up a couple of trophies.”
Besides the playoff win over Westwood, Donald also won the Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Arizona, in February, and last year captured the Madrid Masters. Before that, his last victory was the 2006 Honda Classic. And, of course, he’s never won a major.
When Donald wins a tournament, he gets the customary trophy, the payday, the celebration on the 18th green. The No. 1 ranking comes with no pomp and circumstance whatsoever.
Given his druthers, he’s take a lot more of the former over the latter.
“They’re very different, obviously,” he said. “In simple terms, being No. 1 ranked means you’ve outperformed the rest of the golfers in a two-year period. You’ve played more consistently. In that regards it’s very gratifying to know that you’ve been more consistent and better over a two-year period.
“Obviously you win a tournament, you’re better over a four-day period. But winning is a big deal, and winning majors is a big deal. Certainly being No. 1 is a great achievement, but if you ask me if I would swap that for (Phil Mickelson’s) record, sure, I would love to take his majors and the number of victories he’s had. But I’ll continue to feed off all the good things that have got me to No. 1, and hopefully I can add to my victories, too.”
Donald’s game could be a nice fit for the setup at Congressional, even on a course set up to play as long as 7,574 yards.
The front nine has some shorter holes that suit his game, and players have emerged from practice rounds saying that fairways are contoured to reward straight drives.
“Someone asked me yesterday, ‘What type of player does this favor?”’ McDowell said. “I’m still trying to work that out, but it’s certainly not a bomber.
“It is great to see that the game is not all about par,” McDowell said. “You can still have a finesse player like Luke, but you’ve still got to be able to move it at least 280, 290 (yards) nowadays to have a chance to compete. He’s got the all-around game, and I think he’s very deserving of his No. 1 spot right now.”