LOS ANGELES – There’s nothing sexy about the short game.
If it’s true “chicks dig the long ball,” then the short game is for folks who love manual labor, who relish rolling up their sleeves to do some dirty work.
The short game, really, is janitorial work. It’s about cleaning up messes.
Luke Donald plays like a wizard with a mop.
His long game may not be very sexy, but Donald doesn’t care. He rolled up his sleeves to become the No. 1 player in the world. He got dirty honing a short game few players can match. You can have the 300-yard drives; Donald will take holing out from off the green every time. The short game took him from being a very good player to being one of the world’s best today.
Donald’s short game helped him again Friday at the Northern Trust Open in his first appearance of the 2013 season.
With a 5-under-par 66, Donald moved into contention at Riviera Country Club, just two shots off the lead going into the weekend. At No. 3 in the world, the Englishman is the highest-ranked player in the field.
“It’s a great compliment when you say somebody makes something look easy,” Donald’s caddie, John McLaren said. “That’s the way it is with Luke’s short game. He makes some of the most difficult shots look simple.”
McLaren saw it in Friday’s round, with Donald using his pitching, chipping and putting to erase mistakes and move him up the leaderboard. With all the gentle twists and turns in the little green valley that is home to Riviera, it’s tough to hit these small greens. A reliable short game is a must to win here.
“Luke’s short game has been special,” McLaren said. “He was much tidier today than yesterday.”
After 11 weeks off from competition, Donald is rested, re-fueled and ready to go. His short game already looks to be in midseason form. He holed out a chip from 60 feet for eagle at the treacherous 10th in Thursday’s first round. He nearly holed out a bunker shot from there for another eagle on Friday. He holed out from 50 feet in a bunker in front of the 14th green on Thursday.
Donald, 35, says coming back from his wrist surgery five years ago came with an epiphany. He was limited to short-game work when he first came back to play.
“A lot of the breakdown in my wrist came from trying to hit the ball too hard, getting in positions that was putting stress on that wrist,” Donald said. “When I had to start practicing again, after that wrist surgery, all I could do was putt for a while, then I could chip and work my way up through the golf clubs. That's a good way to practice. I firmly believe that scoring happens from the hole back to the tee. I'm kind of a proven example of that.
“Ever since that period, it was kind of a wakeup call for me, that I just needed to really concentrate on what I could control. I don't think I have that body, the athletic demeanor, where I'm going to be able to hit it 300 yards. There's no magic thing, or driver, that's just going to give me that extra yardage. I just have to keep improving the things that I can control.”
In rebuilding his game, Donald became a blueprint for success for players who aren’t long-ball hitters on the PGA Tour.
Brandt Snedeker credits his improved play to watching how Donald crafted his game on the way to No. 1.
“Luke showed that it can be done, that you don’t have to bomb it to be the No. 1 player in the world,” Snedeker said after winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Sunday. “You have to do everything really well, and he gave us the blueprint of how you do it.”
Donald is hoping to follow that blueprint to another title this weekend.