DUBLIN, OHIO—When Luke Donald walked into the media center at the Memorial Tournament, he did so as the World No. 1 for the first time in his career.
While his dramatic ascension seemed a bit unlikely given his starting place to begin the year—Donald started 2011 at No. 9 and fell to No. 10 in late January—the Englishman has been the model of consistency since missing the cut at the Northern Trust Open in February.
“When I missed the cut, it was so frustrating because I spent a good six weeks working on things that I thought were very solid, and they were,” said Donald, reflecting back to his last missed cut of the 2011 season. “I just was probably a little bit competition rusty.”
Rust or not, Donald’s record speaks loudly over the last three months with wins at the WGC-Accenture Match Play in March and the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship last week at Wentworth, just outside of London. The other six starts, which included the WGC-Cadillac Championship, The Masters and The Players Championship, were all top 10 finishes.
Maybe the most impressive performance was at Wentworth when he won a playoff over then-No. 1 Lee Westwood.
Donald admitted to not having his best game at the BMW, but found his way around one of the best fields of the year and then took down No. 1.
“I struggled quite a bit on round three,” Donald said. “I played decently the other two days. But you know, I think that’s what was more satisfying to me than anything else, that even without really feeling totally in control of my game, I was able to get it done. And obviously to do it in that circumstance going head‑to‑head with Lee and to have everything on the line made it that much more special.”
Elevating to No. 1 has never been the Englishman’s primary focus, but raising the level of his game has.
Before injuring his left wrist in the final round of the 2008 U.S. Open, Donald had been trying to hit the ball further to compete with fields that were getting longer on the PGA Tour. During a six-month hiatus, while recovering from wrist surgery, Donald spent time thinking about an approach that he determined was hurting his game. Thus, he decided to forgo length.
Donald ranked 112th in driving distance with an average of 281.6 yards off the tee in 2008. Since then Donald has not averaged more than 280 yards and, in fact, in 2011 is ranked 163rd with a 277.7 average.
“My swing got to a place I didn’t really like, and it was affecting me quite heavily off the tee,” Donald said. “For as far as I hit a ball, I needed to hit more fairways than I did. That long off‑season I had, I spent quite a bit of time working on things that’s definitely resulted in me hitting more fairways, and because of that I’m hitting more greens, so that’s been helping my scoring.”
In 2011 Donald is ranked 33rd in driving accuracy and 43rd in greens in regulation.
“There isn’t anybody who spends more time working on his golf game than I’ve seen in Luke Donald,” Jack Nicklaus said on Tuesday. “And he spends his time chipping and putting, chipping and putting, and I mean, he wears out the practice greens.”
The last two years Donald was the best statistical putter on the PGA Tour. Now his short game is catching up as he ranks third in scrambling. If he possessed a better sand game, Donald would, no doubt, be first in that category as well.
So with all this on the plus side of the Donald’s ledger, the lone knock on him is that he has not won a major championship.
According to Las Vegas, Donald is a 12-1 favorite in two weeks at Congressional, but it is not often that the favorite wins a major.
Since 1986 when the world ranking debuted, only three times has the world No. 1 won the U.S. Open—Tiger Woods in 2000, 2002 and 2008. As a point of reference, reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell was ranked 37th.
World ranking position means little to Donald going into Congressional.
“I’ve always said if you’re playing well, you can win any tournament,” Donald said. “It doesn’t really matter the circumstances. I’m obviously on a big high confidence-wise.”
Stuart Hall is editor of the Golf Press Association.