Donald finds confidence once again at Valspar Championship
2012 winner at Innisbrook shoots 4-under 67 in Round 1
March 21, 2019
By Jeff Babineau, PGATOUR.COM
- March 21, 2019
- Former Valspar Championship winner Luke Donald felt right at home on Thursday. (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)
PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Luke Donald didn’t know what to expect when he arrived to the first tee at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course on Thursday morning. He has made only 10 starts in two seasons due to a temperamental back that has refused to cooperate with him.
But making his first start since toughing out two rounds at the Sony Open in January, Donald appeared to be his vintage self for much of the day. He exhibited solid play, sound course management, and some deft touch around the greens, always a great strength of his. Even a closing bogey at the end of the Snake Pit, Copperhead’s par-4 18th, could do little to dent a day in which he'd played so solidly, opening the Valspar Championship at 4-under 67.
Hard to fathom that Donald, now 41 and a married father of three, has not held a trophy since that Sunday at Innisbrook in 2012 when he stood tallest in a four-man playoff – the Valspar Championship's very first – to win his fifth PGA TOUR title.
“He was still No. 1 in the world then,” said Pat Goss, Donald’s longtime coach, the man who recruited Donald to play college golf at Northwestern from England. “This is a fickle game. You get going in the wrong direction and your confidence takes a hit and it’s hard to build it back. But as I always say to him, form is temporary. You’ve just got to keep working at it.”
A problem with Donald's L-4 and L-5 – partly a result of too much lateral movement in his swing – has kept Donald from doing much on the golf front these last two seasons. He made only nine PGA TOUR starts last season, and Valspar marks only his second tournament of 2018-19.
Donald is playing on a major medical extension in 2018-19 and has 15 starts to earn enough FedExCup points to regain full membership on the PGA TOUR.
Donald felt good heading into Sony, but on Monday of tournament week his back flared up and he struggled to get through his two rounds. He’s been taking things slowly on the way back. Goss said Donald had been chipping and putting for about a month, but only started hitting drivers about two weeks ago. That’s why Thursday’s round – perfectly clean until he blocked a drive into the right trees at 18 – proved so encouraging.
“Honestly my goal this week is to play four rounds and feel pretty good at the end of four rounds and then keep going,” Donald said. “But to play well is a nice bonus.”
Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course, which calls upon players to display sound course management, old-fashioned grit and good scrambling abilities, has been one of Donald’s happy hunting grounds through the years. After shooting 13-under 271 to win in 2012, he followed by tying for fourth in each of the next two years. On Thursday, a par at the 18th – where he failed to get up and down from a long-range bunker shot, missing a 10-footer – would have tied his low career round on the Copperhead.
He has found his time away from golf spent in his adopted residence in Jupiter, Florida, to be something of a mixed blessing. Sure, he misses the competition and competing against the game’s best. You don’t spend 56 weeks at No. 1 in the world without a considerable amount of drive. But time off has given Donald some quality weeks to spend observing his three young daughters.
“If I'm spending some time with them, it's not the worst thing in the world,” he said. “And obviously I've had a pretty good career, I would like that to continue, but, yeah, it's not end of the world stuff, certainly. My kids are 9, 7 and nearly 5 now, and it's great ages to watch them and be around them a lot, so I've tried to frame it that way. It's just a good opportunity to spend some time with them and have some time at home. But, yeah, I'm ready to get back out here.”
Goss said Donald’s time off and challenges with the health of his back have led the pair to re-emphasize basic fundamentals such as posture, and that’s been good. And any chance Donald has extra time to hone his world-class short game, that’s only going to help, too. He always has been a good chipper, outstanding bunker player and excellent putter.
Donald never will bomb it out there where today's young guns are hitting it, but his coach sees many more quality seasons in Donald's future.
“His fitness is good, and his desire is strong, for sure,” Goss said. “He’s just got to get healthy and back to competing.”
Donald said his plan is to make upcoming starts at the Valero Texas Open and the RBC Heritage, but he is taking it day by day and week by week. Health willing, he’ll climb back to golf’s upper echelon.
“I still think I'm good enough to compete and win and be one of the better players in the world,” Donald said. “I’ve done it before so there's no reason why not.
“We have seen lots of players around my age have been very successful – even Justin Rose is only a couple years younger than me and still playing great golf. It's a little bit of a different style of golf that I play because there's certain courses that I'm just going to struggle on just because I don't hit it quite far enough these days. But there are courses out there I can compete and do well at and win, hopefully.”
The Copperhead is one of those courses. Rusty or not, Luke Donald is off to a great start.