HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — Cover your brains. A zombie apocalypse is in progress. They said it couldn’t happen but dang it, these varmints just won’t stay dead.
I apologize for my overreaction, but Luke Donald lighting up the RBC Heritage leaderboard feels like a horror movie come to life, at least for American Ryder Cup fans.
Maybe you thought you’d seen the last of European Ryder Cup studs Luke Donald and Lee Westwood? Prepare to think again.
Sure, Donald got passed over for the team in 2014 and missed his first Masters in 11 years last week because he didn’t qualify, and I bet you figured the game, full of 330-yard bombers, had passed him by. Well, his first-round 66 says otherwise. It’s not news that Donald played well. The RBC Heritage has been a nice annuity for him—he’s had three runner-up finishes and two third-place finishes.
In short, Donald, who shot a 5-under 66 and took the early clubhouse lead on Thursday, can still play.
Westwood fell off the radar for a bit even though he moved to America to help his game. That didn’t work, his marriage hit the rocks and he moved back to England. Last week, Westwood had a chance at the Masters with a stellar closing round until his three-foot par putt at the 16th didn’t sniff the hole. Close but no cigar? No, finishing fourth in the Masters after a long dry spell absolutely calls for Westwood to light up a cigar. So, too, should European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke.
Donald and Westwood, like zombies risen from the dead, contending to make his team for September’s showdown at Hazeltine in Minnesota? Better light two cigars.
The duo is a long way from qualifying for the European team but the feeling is, this could be the start of something big. And there’s the rise of England’s Danny Willett, who won the Masters and whose straight-hitting prowess and clutch putting make him one of the guys you’d least like to face in a Ryder Cup singles match.
It’s all bad news for U.S. captain Davis Love, who was enjoying a heck of a month until now. He made the Masters cut at age 51, not all bad. He finished the tournament with a stirring hole-in-one at the 16th. “One of the biggest roars I’ve ever heard,” he said. “A neat way to finish.”
Wednesday, he returned to Harbour Town Golf Links, a place where he has won the RBC Heritage five times. There was a massive red, white and blue birthday cake waiting for him when he left the press room after a Ryder Cup chat with the media, and he cut into it after a colorful (the polite way to say off-key) rendition of “Happy Birthday” was sung by a small gathering. Wednesday was Love’s first day of being 52 years old.
You can dismiss these events as being way too early to worry about the Ryder Cup if you wish. But Donald, 38, and Westwood, who turns 43 this month, aren’t journeymen. They both scaled the heights of No. 1 during the Tiger Woods era’s waning days. Their return to form, and the Ryder Cup, would be a big deal in terms of skill and experience.
If chosen this week, the Euros’ lineup would include rookies Matthew Fitzpatrick, Andy Sullivan, Rafael Cabrera-Bello and Thomas Peters. Willett hasn’t played a Ryder Cup yet, either. Mix in Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia, plus Donald and Westwood if they keep it up, and Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen, who had a strong Masters, and that looks like a stronger team than any potential U.S. lineup right now.
Westwood is within range, ranked 35th in the world. It’s Donald, ranked 95th, who’s got a lot of work yet to do. He knows it and he’s doing it. A good finish for him this week would be big. A good finish for him any week would be big. His last win was the 2012 Transitions (now Valspar) Championship and he managed only five top-10 finishes in the last two years. He got to No. 1 without winning a major championship, as did Westwood.
How did Donald fall so far so fast? It was a variety of reasons. Becoming a father and having a family is a factor that often temporarily sidelines tour players in their late 30s as family life takes priority over golf. In Donald’s case, he said it was more about feeling the need to improve his driving—not only his lack of distance but his relative lack of accuracy. Short and straight can work on the tour but short and crooked doesn’t.
“I didn’t feel like I hit it in the fairway enough for how long I hit it,” Donald said. “I felt my short game inside a hundred yards was good enough and the putting was good enough, obviously.
“It didn’t work. I didn’t hit it farther and I didn’t hit it straighter. I wasn’t able to change my golfing DNA. I lost a bit of confidence and I’m still working to get that back.”
The stress on his tee-to-green game worked into his short game, which slipped a bit due to the extra ball-striking work that took away from his short-game practice.
“I haven’t looked at my putting statistics but I’m probably outside the top 100 right now,” he said. “For five straight years, I was No. 1. That’s a big difference.”
Since the tour began keeping the strokes-gained-putting stat, slightly more meaningful than putts per green hit in regulation, Donald’s rank in putting has been 1, 1, 1, 3, 13, 7 and 38. This year, he’s at 127.
Thursday, he made six birdies. One was from 20 feet at the 11th, another was from 15 feet off the fringe at No. 3. The rest were inside seven feet.
Maybe all he needs to restore his confidence is a week at Harbour Town.
“It’s been a big focus of my practice to get back to my strengths, which is from 100 yards and in,” Donald said. “I think I’m right up there now in strokes tee-to-green from 100 to 150 yards. I haven’t quite seen it yet on the greens but I feel like I’m making more putts and hitting better putts. So I’ll just keep plugging away.”
Missing the Masters helped light a fire under Donald, who has always been known as one of the tour’s hardest workers.
“I don’t want to be sitting at home watching the majors on TV,” Donald said. “In general, it’s been a tough couple of years for me. I haven’t played as well as I would like. My game isn’t very far away but the results haven’t matched what I’m capable of. It was nice to see it come through today.”
It was one small step for a golfer, one giant step for a zombie.