Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 15, 2011

Luke Donald’s Double Caps A Dominating Year

Golf’s two biggest tours gave Luke Donald a couple of very nice birthday presents this week. The Englishman, who turned 34 on December 7th, was first honored by his peers on the PGA Tour who voted him the Player of the Year as announced at the beginning of the week. Then on Thursday officials of the European PGA Tour revealed that Donald had also won that circuit’s Golfer of the Year award in a vote by journalists. The twin awards were especially fitting this year. Like a handful of other premiere European professionals, Donald maintains membership on both the U.S. and European tours. With nearly $6.7 million in earnings on the PGA Tour, and more than $6.9 million on the European Tour, he became the first golfer to win the money title on both tours in one year.

Donald accomplished the twin feats by showing remarkable consistency at the highest level of the game from early in the year right through both tours’ season-ending tournaments. In February he won the Accenture Match Play Championship, one of four annual World Golf Championship events that count as official tournaments on both the PGA and European Tours. In three of his six matches, Donald simply flattened his opponent; thrashing Charley Hoffman in the opening round and Matt Kuchar in the semifinals by identical scores of 6&5, and waxing Ryan Moore in the quarterfinals 5&4.

In the finals he faced off against Martin Kaymer, who had just risen to #1 in the Official World Golf Rankings. But Donald was unfazed by either Kaymer’s ranking or the German’s win in the 2010 PGA Championship. He took the lead on the par-5 second hole and eventually won 3&2. In claiming his third career PGA Tour victory and his first since 2006, Donald needed just 89 holes to win six matches. He never trailed in any of them, and led after 81 of the 89 holes.

Donald’s consistent play in match after match in the Arizona desert presaged his performance for the entire year. He entered a total of 26 events on either the PGA or European Tours, and recorded an astonishing 20 top-ten finishes. At the end of May he beat Lee Westwood in a playoff to win the BMW PGA Championship. Played annually at the historic Wentworth Club, site of the European Tour’s headquarters, the event is the flagship tournament of that tour. The win propelled Donald to the top of the World Golf Rankings, a rarified perch that he continues to occupy as 2011 comes to a close. He added yet another European Tour victory in July when he was the easy winner of the rain-shortened Barclay’s Scottish Open.

But the real test of Donald’s mettle came at the end of the year. In order to play at least the minimum number of events to qualify for membership on both tours, he had to maintain a sometimes brutal travel schedule. In the spring over four weeks he played in Florida, Spain, England, and Ohio. Another four-week sprint in the fall took him from Chicago to Atlanta to Scotland to Spain. Yet as both tours’ seasons wound down and the chance to top both money lists became apparent, Webb Simpson moved more than $300,000 ahead of him on the PGA Tour even as Rory McIlroy moved within striking distance on the European Tour. At a time when the travel demands of his schedule might easily have worn him down, Donald needed to rally.

So he added an appearance at the PGA Tour’s final event, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Orlando. In the tournament’s final round, he was two strokes behind Simpson with just nine holes to play. But while Simpson played the season’s final nine holes in even par, Donald ran off six consecutive birdies from the 10th through the 15th holes. His back nine 30 led to a final round of 64 and a two-shot victory that secured the money title on the U.S. tour. It also assured Donald of the Vardon Trophy for the lowest season-long stroke average on the PGA Tour.

Over the next six weeks Donald played only once, as he welcomed the birth of his second daughter and mourned the unexpected passing of his father. Still he came to the European Tour’s Dubai World Championship with the dual money titles clearly in his grasp. McIlroy needed to win the tournament and have Donald finish tenth or worse in order to pass him. In the opening round the U.S. Open champion was six strokes better than the World #1. But just as he had in Orlando, with everything on the line Donald came through. While a fatigued McIlroy fired three consecutive 71’s over the final rounds to fade into a tie for eleventh, Donald followed his opening 72 with rounds of 68, 66, and 66 to finish in solo third and easily win the money title, or Order of Merit as the European Tour so politely calls it.

Donald’s stellar year on two tours is also a reminder that while fans love to watch the big hitters smash the ball incredible distances, there is a lot more to the game than just “grip it and rip it.” The diminutive Donald ranked 147th in driving distance on the PGA Tour this year. But his exquisite short game and deadly putting stroke more than atone for his lack of distance. He ranked 1st in putting, 2nd in average number of birdies, 5th in sand save percentage, and 8th in scrambling. Way back in February, in the Match Play finals, then world #1 Kaymer was consistently twenty or thirty yards ahead of Donald after their drives. But at the end of the day it was Donald who hoisted the trophy. No one will ever call Luke Donald a big hitter. But as the awards roll in, recognizing a remarkable globe-trotting year in which he dominated two tours, everyone has to call him #1.

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