COMING OFF AN historic season, Luke Donald was starting to feel forgotten.
All the talk at the start of the year was whether Tiger Woods was trending toward a return to the top of golf. That gave way to Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old US Open champion who two weeks ago reached No 1 in the world and figured to stay there for a long time.
“I don’t pay too much attention to it, but I certainly wasn’t in the media at all,” Donald said. “I think people … thought that my last year was maybe a little bit more of a — not a fluke, but I don’t think many people thought I could do that all over again this year.
“Hopefully, I can prove them wrong.”
Sunday at the Transitions Championship was a step in that direction.
Donald was just another name on the leaderboard — so crowded that eight players had at least a share of the lead at some point during the final round — until he ran off four birdies in a seven-hole stretch in the middle of the round and closed with seven pars.
That gave Donald a 5-under 66 and put him in a four-man playoff at Innisbrook that didn’t last long.
From a heavy lie in the right rough, he put a flawless swing on a 7-iron and watched it clear the bunker in front of the elevated green and settle 6 feet away. Then, after watching Jim Furyk (40 feet), Bae Sang-Moon (18 feet) and Robert Garrigus (7 feet) all miss their birdie putts, Donald thrust his right fist into the air after his birdie putt curled into the cup.
Just like that, he’s back to No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy’s stay atop the world ranking only lasted two weeks, and there’s no shame in that. Four other players stayed at No. 1 for only one week the first time they got there — Fred Couples, Tom Lehman, Ernie Els and Tiger Woods. All but Lehman eventually returned.
If anything, Donald showed he’s not going to give up the ranking without a fight.
A year ago, he became the first player to win money titles on the PGA Tour and European Tour. He started this season finishing so far back that he didn’t get any ranking points. Then, he went to the Match Play Championship and became only the third No 1 seed to get eliminated in the first round.
“I hit it poorly, wasn’t hitting the shots that I wanted to, wasn’t even feeling very comfortable on the greens,” Donald said. “It just seemed very strange to me, because I had been working hard and I felt good about where I was.”
He likes where he is now.
Donald won for the fifth time in his last 31 tournaments worldwide, and this one was enough to return him to No. 1. Because neither he nor McIlroy is playing until the Masters, Donald will drive down Magnolia at the top of the world ranking.
That means more pressure, and more questions about winning that elusive major. Donald — just as Lee Westwood before him — didn’t get enough credit as No. 1 without a major, which some perceive as a requirement because of the standard Woods has set. It took Donald winning two money titles to get his due.
Will he get the attention now? Probably.
“I still think Rory and, obviously, Tiger will be getting a lot of the attention,” Donald said. “There probably is an advantage to me. I can kind of go about my business and not have to deal with as much as those two are dealing with.”
McIlroy wasted no time sending his congratulations through Twitter. “Well I enjoyed it while it lasted! Congrats (at)LukeDonald! Impressive performance!” he tweeted.
He followed with another tweet that at least he won’t have to change his profile picture, taken late last year with McIlroy flashing a No 2 sign alongside his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
“I’m sure he got a taste of the view and I’m sure he’ll want more of it. He’s a great player,” Donald said. “I think golf is in a good spot right now. There’s a lot of excitement going on.” The only fluke was how Donald returned to No 1 — by winning a play-off, just like he did at Wentworth last May when he first rose to the top of the world ranking.
McIlroy and agent Conor Ridge at the White House last week. Pic: Charles Dharapak/AP/Press Association Images
With so many possibilities in this wild final round, only the best golf was going to get rewarded. Garrigus birdied the last two holes for a 64 and was the first to finish on 13-under 271, which turned out to be enough for the play-off. Bae, the South Korean with the fluid swing, made a 6-foot par putt on the final hole for a 68. Furyk had a 69 and was the last one to join the four-man play-off.
Missing from the group was Ernie Els, whose bogey-bogey finish cost him a chance to win — and maybe a trip to the Masters.
Els was leading at 14-under par when he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, missed the green badly on the par-3 17th for a bogey, then pulled a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole for a 67 to finish one shot out of the playoff.
The Big Easy could have secured a Masters invitation by winning. Because he tied for fifth, he only moved to No. 62 in the world. Bay Hill does not have as strong of a field, meaning Els might have to win next week or the Houston Open to get back to Augusta National.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “I’m pretty hot now, and it’s difficult to talk with a straight head here. If I take stock, I think I’m playing good golf, and I’ve got to head into the next couple of weeks trying to get a win.”
Donald felt the jangled nerves of trying to win, only it was different from Wentworth.
This was more about the trophy, not the ranking.
He started the final round three shots out of the lead, then swiftly moved into position with four birdies in a seven-hole stretch around the turn, showing off his polished iron play on a couple of those birdies.
In the final hour, there was a six-way tie for the lead until two players dropped out — Els with his bogey on the 18th, and Ken Duke with a bogey on the 17th when he rimmed out a 5-foot putt.
Donald had a heavy lie in the right rough, up the hill to a pin tucked over the bunker. He went with a 7-iron from 157 yards — it was playing closer to 170 yards with the elevation change — and the shot narrowly cleared the bunker and settled 6 feet below the cup. It was a remarkable shot, especially in a four-man playoff. That’s what No. 1 players do.
“That shot just came out perfectly,” Donald said. “You never quite know out of the rough. Sometimes it comes out soft and sometimes it comes out a little hot. That one, just when it was in the air, looked good to me.”