Major Meltdown: The Curious Case of Luke Donald

Will LeivenbergFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2012

FARMINGDALE, NY - AUGUST 25:  Luke Donald of England watches his tee shot on the 14th hole during the third round of The Barclays at the Black Course at Bethpage State Park August 25, 2012 in Farmingdale, New York.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

In 37 major championships, Luke Donald has somehow managed to come up empty-handed. That’s not a drought; it is Moses lost in the desert for 40 years. 

Despite having a swing that would put Ben Hogan to shame, Donald currently owns golf’s most dubious title—the world’s best player without a major championship.

The 34-year-old is on his way to joining a long, luckless list of athletes that never converted on their sport’s biggest stages. Ted Williams. Elgin Baylor. Warren Moon. Carl Yastrzemski. Charles Barkley. Barry Sanders.

The Englishman is an especially perplexing case study because he appears powerless in majors, yet has garnered worldwide success by beating the most elite of competition many times, actually securing the world No. 1 in golf rankings in 2012.

Since turning pro in 2001, Donald has won seven times and over €14 million on the European Tour, and five titles and over $27 million on the PGA Tour. Not impressed?

2011 was Donald’s zenith, a “transcontinental quest,” as Sean Martin of GolfWeek called it. He won the money title on both the European and PGA circuits, a feat never before accomplished over a career, much less over a single season.

In 25 events, Donald won four times (WGC-Accenture Match Play, BMW PGA Championship, Barclays Scottish Open, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic). He also finished in the top three 10 times (40 percent), top five 13 times (52 percent) and top 10 19 times (76 percent).

Donald was as precise as an archer. He led the entire PGA Tour in the following statistical categories: scoring average, overall putting, final-round scoring average, three-putt avoidance and top-10 finishes.

Major championships, however, remain Donald’s kryptonite.

Sure, this year could be considered a step in the right direction, as Donald earned a pair of top-10 finishes, first at the Masters (T4) and then at the PGA Championship (T8). But during his stint as the world No. 1—recently usurped by the pesky Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy—he also disappointed at the year’s two other majors, the U.S. Open (T47) and Open Championship (MC).

''You always gear your season up to peak at these events and I haven't quite figured that out yet,'' he said after the PGA Championship.

Haven’t figured it out is an understatement, Luke.

No one said winning a major was a stroll across the fairway. Just ask Colin Montgomerie, one of golf’s most esteemed competitors who won over 40 times worldwide, but has all of zero major championships in his career. Or perhaps Lee Westwood, another Englishman who has been unable to convert in a major, despite an astounding 14 top-10 finishes, including five T3’s and two T2’s.

Donald may soon bring tea and crumpets to the meeting of the woulda-coulda-shoulda major champions if he doesn’t get his act together. He is at the peak of his career, but it won’t be fulfilled without a major, just as Phil Mickelson’s career had a glaring void until his breakthrough Masters victory in '04.

It’s all the more frustrating because from tee to green, Donald’s game was built for major championships—a crafty short game paired with bulletproof accuracy with his irons. He’s by no means long off the tee like a Bubba Watson, but his ability to shape the ball and adapt his game to a course’s demanding conditions is among the best in the world.  

Donald has finished in the top 10 in seven majors. The most memorable was at the 2011 Masters, where he briefly held a share of the lead on Sunday before a double-bogey on the punishing par-three 12th hole. He boldly fought back with four birdies in his next six holes, but a bogey at the 17th—paired with his previous blunder—left him in a share of fourth place.

His major dilemma is one of mental fortitude. He definitely wouldn’t be the first; it took just four holes for the British Open to slip away from Adam Scott this past year.

Donald must emulate past major winners from Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who have kept calm, yet focused as the pressure of the moment floods in.

Bobby Jones’ observation will forever hold true: “Golf is played on a five-inch course—the one between the ears.”

For Donald and the major championships going forward, trust in his own game is vital. His swing is picture-perfect—as effortless, and yet punishing as Ali delivering a knockout punch.

It might do Donald well to follow some more advice of "The Greatest": “It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”

One thing is certain: If the drought ends, Donald may have discovered a winning formula that could lead to a downpour.