There are moments when Luke Donald looks like the most relaxed man in golf.
Take the night before the Masters in April. Donald walked into the Savannah Grand Rapids Pavilion in Evans, Ga., to be honored as the 2011 Golf Writer’s Association of America’s Player of the Year and he broke up the dinner.
He brought out a Rory McIlroy wig and put it on his head. He poked fun at the difference between accents from the United States and the United Kingdom. He looked like a million bucks.
The next day, Donald shot 75 and ultimately finished 13 shots behind Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen in the Masters.
Last week, Donald arrived at the United States Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco as one of the favorites to win the year’s second major. He’d won the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth by four shots in May, running away from the field. He’d replaced McIlroy as the No. 1 player in the world. If any major looked like it was destined to be the place for Donald’s breakthrough – Olympic demands tidiness from all parts of a golfer’s game – this U.S. Open venue seemed like the place.
Donald wound up shooting 79-72 to miss the cut by three strokes, flaming out in a marquee grouping that included McIlroy (MC) and Lee Westwood (T10).
He hardly looked relaxed then, leaving a major championship two days before its conclusion, one more big chance gone missing.
“Certainly that’s one part of my golfing resume, in the last few years especially, that I need to continually address and continually improve,” Donald said last Friday at Olympic. “I want to win [a major] more than any of you guys know.”
At 34, Donald is in the prime of his career, no longer the four-time All-American at Northwestern for which so much greatness was predicted.
It still may come, of course, and in some ways it has. Last year was Donald’s best in golf. He won the money titles on both sides of the Atlantic, chasing down Webb Simpson with a blistering run of six straight birdies on the final day at Disney and then topping Europe’s order of merit two months later.
That sterling achievement only made his lack of a major that more confounding. Donald could do anything, except the one big thing he had not done.
Of the 16 players ranked No. 1 in the history of the Official World Golf Ranking, only Donald and Westwood have failed to win majors. Even worse, their reigns have followed the era of Tiger Woods, who held the No. 1 ranking for a record 623 weeks and skewed the definition of golfing greatness for everybody else.
Woods’s dominance made it harder for others to break through in majors, but that time has passed.
Fifteen different players have won the last 15 majors. The last nine by first-time winners. Donald isn’t among them.
It is only natural to wonder if Donald is beginning to feel the pressure even at a time when golf has never been more wide open. It’s one thing to lose to Woods face to face at a major championship, as Donald did at the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah. It’s another to land in a made-for-TV group as the world No. 1 and play some of your worst golf of the year.
“In terms of that anxious attitude of pressing too hard, I don’t think so,” Donald said at Olympic when asked if he was starting to get in his own way at majors. “I think it was more a case of just not quite feeling too comfortable with the swing this week. And that happens. I feel that not just major weeks, but other weeks, too. Unfortunately, at major weeks that’s going to be magnified even more.”
In 33 majors since turning pro in 2001, Donald has missed 10 cuts and recorded six top-10 finishes.
In his breakout 2011, he finished tied for fourth in the Masters and tied for eighth in the PGA. (This year, Donald finished tied for 32nd at Augusta).
Is there time to win a major? Of course there is. Corey Pavin – a short-game scrambler in the Donald mold – won his lone major at age 35. Darren Clarke – from out of nowhere – captured his major last year at 42. Phil Mickelson – who went from major-less to the Hall of Fame – broke through at 33.
And just as Mickelson suffered through years of questions about his lack of a big trophy, Donald is in the spotlight now, or more accurately, the maw.
Only one person can make those questions stop.