Luke Donald is riding a wave of momentum heading into the Memorial.
David Cannon/Getty Images
Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Luke Donald was having a devil of a time closing out tournaments when his coach, Pat Goss, told him to just be patient.

"It'll happen," Goss said. "And when it does the flood gates will open."

This was 12 years ago, when Donald was a sophomore at Northwestern, and Goss, who is still his coach, was right. Donald won the Big Ten title and NCAA individual championship, and his 70.45 single-season scoring average broke the record previously held by Stanford's Tiger Woods.

Now 33, Donald is reaping the rewards of patience all over again. In the wake of another big breakthrough, the new No. 1 heads into this week's Memorial at Muirfield Village in the best form of his life, a run that can only be called Tiger-like.

"I think we've seen Tiger have incredible runs of putting where 10 feet and in he doesn't seem to miss," said Justin Rose, the defending champion this week. "Luke seems to be that way right now."

In posting his 14th top-10 in his last 15 worldwide starts at Europe's BMW PGA Championship last weekend, Donald held off Lee Westwood to win and take over at No. 1. The third player to rise to No. 1 in the post-Tiger era, Donald will be the closest thing to Tiger in Dublin, Ohio. Four-time Memorial winner Woods will rest his left knee and Achilles in hopes of getting healthy for the U.S. Open, so the people's choice at Jack's place will be either Phil Mickelson, who tied for fifth, seven behind Rose, last year; 2010 runner-up Rickie Fowler; or jaunty, extravagantly talented Rory McIlroy (T10 last year).

Then again, he could just as easily come from the threesome of HP Byron Nelson winner Keegan Bradley, Rose, and Bubba Watson - already a two-time winner in 2011. Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney will try to impress the third member of their group, Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples.

Muirfield is expected to be soggy this week after the Dublin area took roughly 15 inches of rain in April and May combined. "That has never been on record before," tournament host Jack Nicklaus said Tuesday. Rose called the rough "a little squidgy" in some areas, but pronounced the greens as fast as ever and the course "in perfect shape." A new pond guards the front of the green on the par-3 16th hole.

Donald will of course be the favorite, but if we've learned anything it is that form is fickle. A year ago we thought of Rose as the king of the 18- and 36-hole lead, but then he won the Memorial and AT&T National in the span of a month. It was widely assumed Donald was another nice English lad who tragically was born without any type of urgency or inner fortitude.

After a banner 2006 - 10 top-10s, a win at the Honda, 3-0-0 at the Ryder Cup - Donald frittered away prime earning years trying to get longer off the tee. His results were far from dazzling while he continued to earn good money, a 21st-century golf malady one writer called the "Luke Donald Disease." The diagnosis stuck, probably because it applied to so many of the multi-millionaires on Tour. Donald injured his left wrist and withdrew from the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, got surgery and resumed piling up very good but never great results.

But he is nothing if not tenacious. At Northwestern, he became obsessed with the idea that "Luke" would be the first word spoken by Goss's oldest daughter. And so it was. (It came out "Guke," but that was close enough.) Donald knew he wasn't reaching his potential, and set out to do so. He ditched his distance obsession and submitted to motivational coach David Alred, whose clients mostly play rugby. Donald dropped out of sight at the end of 2010 to get his swing just so, and the rest, as they say, is current events. He will play the first two rounds with Mickelson and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and try to improve upon a lackluster record at Muirfield: in six starts, Donald has just one top-10, a T6 in 2008.

Mickelson, making his first start since finishing T33 at the Players, has done well but never won here. His best result was a T4 in 2006. Three rookies have won on Tour already this year, or four if you include veteran Schwartzel, who is a "rookie" since it's his first year taking up Tour membership.

McDowell tries to rediscover Manor mojo

The European Tour goes from sob story (all the griping about Wentworth's controversial redesign) to Saab story, the Saab Wales Open at Celtic Manor Resort.

Graeme McDowell was looking iffy to make the 2010 European Ryder Cup team when he got to Celtic last year. Then he shot 64-63 to beat Welshman Rhys Davies, igniting a torrid stretch in which McDowell also won the U.S. Open; the deciding point in the Ryder Cup, also at Celtic Manor; and the Chevron Challenge, beating no less than Tiger Woods in extra holes.

Perhaps understandably, McDowell's 2011 has fallen short by comparison. He shot an 80 at Bay Hill, missed the cut at the Masters, and upon getting into contention at the Players, coughed up a 79. G-Mac pronounced himself more pleased with his first three rounds at TPC Sawgrass than disappointed with his final 18, but he's coming off a missed cut at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

The Wales Open couldn't come at a better time for him.

Colin Montgomerie, coming off a T7 at the BMW, will return to Celtic as a player after his captaincy of the victorious European Ryder side. His vice-captains Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke, winners earlier this season, also are in the Saab field at the Twenty Ten Course, along with Ross Fisher, Peter Hanson and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

In one of the more curious quotes of the year, which sounds as if it was written by the Welsh tourism board - which took a major blow due to the torrential rain and mud at last fall's Ryder - Bradley Dredge of Wales opened his comments thusly Tuesday: "Very nice to be here obviously. So, yeah, at least the weather is going to be better this week, obviously, now that we are in Wales rather than England, so looking forward to that."

LPGA and New Jersey get a mulligan

Two weeks after Suzann Pettersen emerged with a win at the soggy Sybase Match Play, a strong field has assembled for the ShopRite LPGA Classic at the 6,150-yard, par-71 Bay Course at Seaview Dolce Resort in Galloway, N.J. Ai Miyazato will try to successfully defend amid such challengers as Yani Tseng, Jiyai Shin, Paula Creamer, Karrie Webb, Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson.

Langer returns to Champions Tour

Nothing could stop Bernhard Langer on the Champions Tour until Langer stopped himself, hurting his left thumb in a bicycle accident in late March. He had surgery and missed the Masters, but now the winner of the Ace Group Classic in February is back. Langer will be among the favorites at the Principal Charity Classic at Glen Oaks C.C. in Des Moines, Iowa.

Among the others in the field: Tom Lehman, a three-time winner already this year; John Cook, who's won twice; Mark Calcavecchia; Mark O'Meara; and newly minted senior Steve Pate.

Short game

Graham DeLaet, the long-hitting Canadian who went in for major back surgery after making $954,000 to finish 100th on the PGA Tour money list in his rookie year in 2010, returns to competition at this week's Melwood Prince George's County Open. The Nationwide event will be held at the University of Maryland Golf Course in College Park. Billy Hurley, who won six times in college but served last year on a Navy destroyer in the Persian Gulf, is a sponsor's exemption... Todd Hamilton, the 2004 British Open winner who has played mostly in Europe this year, will make his second consecutive PGA Tour start at the Memorial, as a sponsor's exemption. He missed the cut at last week's Byron Nelson... Despite shooting 69-67 last weekend for a fifth-place finish at TPC Four Seasons, where he'd been defending his first Tour title, Jason Day is taking this week off. He and his wife, Ellie, who is from Ohio, are moving, and Ellie is battling health problems... The BMW PGA, Europe's flagship event, is keeping up with the Players Championship in at least one way: players are divided over the course. Upon getting a bad break at the Players, PGA Tour pros have settled on the term "getting Sawgrassed." Brad Dredge, who was in contention at the BMW last weekend until making bogey on 16, and double on 17, said this about his collapse: "As I call it now I got 'Wentworthed' on the Sunday. I think that's what I would call it around that course."

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