Apr
22
2011
Long-on-Talent Luke Lurks Near Number One
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Luuuuuuuuuke

World No. 3 Luke Donald wasn’t pleased with his tee shot on the par-3 No. 17. He pushed a long iron to the front-right fringe, coming up well short of the back pin. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Donald, who is ranked third in scrambling, would convert for par  — at the very least, you can never count out the possibility that he’ll chip in. And he nearly did, knocking a bump-and-run to tap-in distance.

Donald fired a six-under 65 at Harbour Town in the second round to take the lead at the halfway mark of The Heritage. If Donald is still atop the leaderboard when Sunday rolls around, he’ll dethrone Martin Kaymer as the No. 1 player in the world rankings. World No. 2 Lee Westwood is leading the weather-delayed the Indonesian Masters, an Asian Tour event, but regardless of how he finishes, Donald will still surpass him with a win.

“I guess it’s always in the back of your mind,” the Englishman said. “It’s hard to get away from knowing that with Twitter and Facebook and the media and everything, you obviously know what’s at stake.”

He hasn’t let the constant talk of surging to the top spot distract him from his game, obviously. After all, winning takes care of everything.

Donald has experienced success at Harbour Town, finishing third in 2010 and second in 2009. Which comes as no surprise. The Pete Dye-design suits his game and it’s one of several stops that plays under 7,000 yards. It’s no secret Donald isn’t a big hitter — he’s ranked 172nd (out of 193) in driving distance, averaging 274.7 yards off the tee. He’s at a disadvantage most weeks since the majority of the tour stops favor longer hitters. However, that’s what also makes Donald’s feats all the more impressive. The guy consistently finishes in the top-ten when all but 20 guys are blasting it past him twenty-to-forty yards.

He must be really accurate off the tee then, right? Well, he’s ranked 74th in driving accuracy percentage, hitting 62% of fairways this year. In total driving, Donald is ranked 164th.

But that’s only one aspect of the game. And it doesn’t matter when you’re a good iron player with a killer short game. Donald ranks third in scrambling and first in putting.

In five starts this season, Donald missed the cut at the Northern Trust Open, his first event, but since then, he’s finished in the top ten, including a win at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, his first victory in the States since capturing the Honda Classic in 2006.

“Winning hopefully brings more winning,” said Donald. “It gave me a boost of confidence. I hadn’t won out here for a few years on the US Tour. I think it alleviated a bit of pressure on myself to know that the hard work I’ve been doing paid off. It’s nice to play well and have chances to win, but winning is a much bigger deal and it was a good stepping stone for me.”

In my opinion, Donald has been underrated for quite some time until recently, considering his distance disadvantage. Now, he just needs two more solid rounds (and hopes no one plays better) to reach the top spot.

In the history of the world rankings, the majority of guys who have reached No. 1 are considered power players. I asked Luke if climbing to the top spot would mean more given that he’s not an overpowering hitter.

“Yeah, it would mean more,” he said. “I’ve had to work on every facet of my game. I can’t rely on just overpowering golf. I’ve got to really do a good job of playing within myself and playing to my strengths. I think I’ve done that the last couple of seasons.

Around 2007 Donald tried to change his swing to gain distance, setting him back instead of the desired boost.

“I got sucked in to try and hit the ball farther a few years ago and got my swing really off kilter,” he said. “It’s taken me three or four years to really get my swing back to a place where I’m more consistent tee to green. I know I can compete with anyone shortgame wise. Now I feel like I’m hitting the ball more solid, hitting more greens and my scoring is good.”

The results speak for themselves. Luke is also ranked first in scoring. I’m rooting for him to pull it off — I’m a sucker for the underdog. Don’t ever underestimate them, either.

(AP Photo/Stephen Morton)