Donald's slate clean -- and ready for more milestones

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February 15, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- He was the surprise guest Sunday night at a kickoff party for the volunteers of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship.

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There was an escalating murmur in the crowd of several hundred at the Tucson casino that turned to hearty applause when the understated world No. 1 was introduced. And Luke Donald, who will defend his Accenture title next week, patiently stayed to autograph about 100 photos for the volunteers before exiting to do several interviews over bottles of the smooth-sipping claret he helped blend.

Monday morning Donald called the Tim Brando radio show and Golf Channel's Morning Drive before the Englishman now known locally as "Tucson's favorite son" fielded questions during a media day at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club. Then he flew to Los Angeles to shoot several commercials in advance of his more normal preparations for the Northern Trust Open, which begins on Thursday.

Such is Donald's life these days. The soft-spoken Brit is in demand everywhere he plays after becoming the first player to win the money titles on both sides of the Atlantic and ascending to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking when he toppled Lee Westwood in a playoff at the BMW PGA Championship last May.

Donald's stretch run to the top of the PGA TOUR money list was equally dramatic, though. He added the season-ending Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic to his schedule after Webb Simpson leapfrogged him in the penultimate event. Donald rose to the challenge, too, coming from five strokes off the pace with a string of six straight birdies on Sunday to win his second PGA TOUR event of the season and his fourth title worldwide.

Of those four victories, Donald says the win on the grounds of the theme park where, not coincidentally, dreams are said to come true was the "most satisfying" given what was at stake and the way he responded.

"Those are the moments that define a career and make me more proud because I was able to kind of find the shots when I needed to," Donald explained. "Certainly, a tremendous year. Winning both money titles, doing something that nobody had ever done officially -- those are the kind of things that you'll always aspire to do to create history."

So now the question is: What does Donald do for an encore?

Even Donald acknowledges duplicating the kind of success he had in 2011 will be a difficult task. Just ask Jim Furyk, who missed the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola a year after winning the FedExCup and PGA TOUR Player of the Year honors. Ditto for Padraig Harrington, who is still looking for his next TOUR victory after winning two majors and his own Jack Nicklaus Award in 2008.

"I think there's always that little bit of a mental, not mental block (exactly), but following a good year with another great year, it's tough," Donald acknowledged. "It's like ... someone who goes out and shoots 62 in the first round or second round. It's hard to do that again and I realize that. But as much as possible, again, I'll just try and take the positives last year and keep concentrating on knowing what got me to where I am right now."

Donald's challenge may even be greater given the emphasis the Northwestern-educated Brit places on supporting the European Tour, as well as the PGA TOUR here in the United States where his family has homes in Illinois and Florida. His schedule on each is limited, as a result.

Donald set himself up last year, though, with the win at the Accenture Match Play Championship since earnings in World Golf Championships events count on both Tours. Top-10 finishes in the other two, as well as in two of the four majors, didn't hurt either. In all, Donald had 14 top-10s on the PGA TOUR, including a pair of seconds and two third-places, and five more on the European Tour (outside of the dual-counting events).

"You have to play very, very well in the right tournaments every time, and that's what obviously Luke did," said Sergio Garcia, one of Donald's good friends, who called the double dip "very remarkable."

The No. 1 ranking was a byproduct of Donald's success, not a focus of his year. But while he jokes that in 30 or 40 years his time as the world's best will be a "great story for the grandkids," the father of two acknowledges the accomplishment has brought him tremendous satisfaction.

"I think as an apsiring young golfer you always want to be as good as you can be and to know that my best is good enough to be No. 1 in the world, that's very gratifying," he said. "My goal is never really to be No. 1 in the world. It's to continually improve, to continually put myself (in postition) to win tournaments and hopefully win majors. Whether I'm ranked No. 1 or ranked No. 500 in the world that's always the goal."

Ah, the majors. Donald is the second player without one on his resume to have held the No. 1 ranking since Tiger Woods abdicated the throne last fall. He has played in 34 of them and finished in the top 10 on just six occasions. Two of those came last year, though, which is cause for optimism. So is the fact that Donald has posted three top-10s in six starts at the Masters, including a tie for fourth last April.

Donald isn't offended when people point out that the 34-year-old with that elegant swing and highly efficient short game has yet to make that major breakthrough. His own motivation is high, and he remains confident in his ability to get the job done.

"Oh, I'd be the first to admit it," he said, jumping in when the subject was first broached on Sunday night. "I'd love to win a major. ... Don't get me wrong. I believe my golf right now is good enough to win a major. I don't think it's lacking anything. I think I can improve things to give myself more opportunities to win majors. For whatever reason, it hasn't quite happened.

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"But at the same time I think there have been a lot of guys who have won one major that I wouldn't swap my career for. There's no luck in becoming the No. 1 ranked player. It takes a lot of time; it takes a lot of effort and a lot of consistency. Certainly, I'd be disappointed if I got to the end of my career and I hadn't won a major.

"But I certainly wouldn't have any regrets because I feel like I'm giving it my all and I'm putting in all the work to give myself the best opportunities."

Donald has had the briefest of offseasons. He finished third in the Dubai World Championship on Dec. 11 to lock down his Order of Merit title, then flew to England to accept an award from the BBC just over a week later and returned to Chicago two days before Christmas. Shortly after New Year's he packed up his wife and two daughters and headed to their home in south Florida.

After a week in Barbados, a rare splurge, where it was "nice to sit on the beach and relax," Donald said, he was back at work, finishing an uncharacteristic 48th in Abu Dhabi late last month. But Donald is raring to go at Riviera, where he had finished sixth or better three straight years before 2011's missed cut, after spending the week with his coach, Pat Goss, and Dave Alred, a rugby kicking coach turned mental and behavioral guru.

"The slate is clean," Donald said. "It's time to not worry about last year. Obviously, you take the positives and you use that in terms of mental approach and feeling good about your game. But it's a new year, new opportunities. The goals become the same. You're always trying to improve, just to get a little bit better at the margin of everything that I do.

"If I can do that, things should work out the same as they did last year -- if not better."

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