It wasn't all that long ago that Luke Donald was the world’s top-ranked golfer with only his ability to win a major golf championship left to prove. Two short years later, the Englishman has slipped all the way to sixth and now faces the question of whether he’s lost the ability to close in PGA Tour events, much less major championships.
Coming off a disappointing performance in the 2013 Masters, Donald saw an opportunity to win his first PGA Tour event in more than a year slip away Sunday with a two-over 37 on the back nine during the final round of the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links.
Donald did manage to post a two-under 69 to finish two shots behind eventual winner Graeme McDowell (in a playoff over Webb Simpson) at seven-under 277. But for a player who is all about winning, the Heritage ended up as just another question mark in a full year of falling just short too many times for comfort.
The last Tour event Donald won was the 2012 Transitions in Tampa Bay. Since that victory, he has posted eight top-10 finishes, including seven top-five showings, without ringing the bell a single time. No other player this side of Tiger Woods has had that much success on the PGA Tour in the past 13 months. That also means no other player has been as unable to close out a victory as Donald in that same span.
Call it 'damned if you do or damned if you don’t', but his inability to finish when in contention has to be of concern to Donald, who has seen Rory McIlroy and then Tiger himself ascend past him into the world’s No. 1 ranking within that same win-less time frame.
Now to be fair, Donald’s near misses have included top fives at the 2012 PLAYERS Championship and the British Open as well as last year’s Tour Championship—all high-end events on challenging layouts. It’s also reasonable to allow that a player’s finish isn't always dictated by his closing round but can be driven by a bad outing earlier in the week.
In fact, Donald’s two-under 69 on Sunday was among the better final rounds Sunday at Harbour Town. Problem is he was four-under and within a shot of the lead when he made the turn and couldn't get anything going on the back nine when he needed it the most. To that point, McDowell bested Donald by three on the inward nine and Simpson got him by two shots to keep him out of the playoff party and a chance to win his first tartan jacket.
Yet perhaps even more painful when Donald looks back at this stretch of his career is what could have been and what was lost. Had Donald won just one or two of the seven events he’s placed inside the top five within the past year, he would be much higher in the world rankings and would be discussed much more often among the best players in the world. Instead, he sits where he sits in the rankings and tends to be discussed even further down the list come major championship time.
The reality he faces is that you are what your results say you are, and in the past 12 months, those results say Donald is a player that just hasn't been good enough in the most difficult tournaments against the toughest players. That might not be fair, but ultimately it's how the scoreboard reads.
It’s also the tale of the tape when it comes to major championships, which Donald wants far more than a victory at Harbour Town or an equivalent PGA Tour site. In the past couple years, Donald has seen players such as McDowell, Simpson, McIlroy and Keegan Bradley break through while he still seeks answers. Problem is, if they are not forthcoming in tournaments such as the Heritage, it’s hard to expect them at The Masters or in a PGA Championship.
It goes without saying that you can’t win a golf tournament without being in or around the lead, but for Donald’s part, being in contention without breaking through must be getting a bit old. It's certainly true in events such as this weekend’s Heritage and especially so in the big ones such as last week’s Masters.
Despite what recent history says, Donald can only hope a breakthrough in the former and especially the latter is coming his way sooner rather than later.