AUGUSTA, Ga. — Good news and bad news for Luke Donald: He won the Par 3 contest while firing five birdies around the perfectly manicured nine-hole mini-Augusta course. Hurrah! But the champion has never gone on to win the Masters. Curses!
More good news and bad news: “You don’t have to be a big hitter to win here,” said defending champion Phil Mickelson. So that’s great for the light-hitting Donald. Then, Mickelson added: “Although big hitting is an advantage.” Oh dear, never mind.
Donald, 33, has spent his entire career trying desperately to convince his critics, and not least himself, that length doesn’t matter. That he can compete on 7,000-yard monster courses like Augusta and beat the likes of Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Alvaro Quiros and Mickelson. His average drives plop down to rest at 272 yards. That’s 40 yards behind Watson. But Donald’s confirmation and reward came in February with a victory at the Accenture Match Play in Tucson on a course that was supposed to beat him up.
“My win at Tucson showed that I can compete on a long course, no matter what,” Donald said. “We can’t all be as long as Dustin and Bubba but there’s more to it that just hitting it a long way. You’ve got to have a short game and get the ball in the hole.”
That’s just how Donald can break his drought in the majors at the Masters: By plotting his way around Augusta and relying on his stellar wedge play and dead-eye putting.
Winning the Par 3 contest proves his short game is unparalleled. World No. 1 Martin Kaymer thinks Donald’s game around the greens might even be sharper than Phil Mickelson’s.
“Luke probably is the best in the world in the short game at the moment,” he said. “I’ve played with Phil a few times and he is unbelievable. But what Luke is doing at the moment is a joke, you know. Wherever he is, you know that he will make his up-and-down and hole out.”
Donald warmed up for the Masters by practicing last week at the Bears Club in Florida. He shot 62 and broke the course record while taking just 19 putts.
Donald has failed to improve on his 2005 Masteres debut, when he finished third while playing the last eight holes in six under par. This week he plans to channel the memory of that storming finish.
“You can still feed off it,” he said. “If you have done it before you can do it again.”
Donald is now full of self-belief. He won in Madrid last year, finished second in the BMW, third in the Wales Open and played a staring role as a wild card pick in Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup team at Celtic Manor. Then came Tucson in February, his eighth career victory and the third on the PGA Tour, which broke a five-year drought.
“That was a monkey off my back,” he said.
All of these tournaments have been stepping-stones towards the ultimate goal: that elusive first major title. Donald is now the fourth-ranked player in the world, and admits he really should have won one by now.
“I am disappointed. I have high expectations. I feel I have a consistent game that should win majors,” he said. “I don’t make too many mistakes and I can pick off birdies. There’s still plenty of time,” he said.
Donald was in danger of becoming Europe’s forgotten man as Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Kaymer were all winning in the States. “They went out an won impressively,” he said. “I hadn’t won so didn’t deserve any attention.”
He’s got everyone’s attention now, and gives some credit to the trailblazing of Padraig Harrington.
“You can probably thank Padraig a little bit for that,” Donald said of the European resurgence. “Him going out an winning the majors inspired some of the Europeans to realize if he can do it, so can we. Hopefully it will only take one European to win a Masters for a bunch of them to follow.”
Donald will play for the first two rounds in the company of Fred Couples and Steve Stricker. Being the first to hit his second shots won’t bother him one bit. It also won’t bother him that Woods once called him a plodder (it was a compliment) or that his brother Christian (Paul Casey’s caddie) has now nicknamed him Plod. Donald knows that he’s more Cool Hand Luke and plans to implement his Match Play winning formula here at Augusta: it’s all about the short game.
As for the curse of the Par 3 champion: “I’m not superstitious,” Donald said. Touch 3-wood.