Luke Donald savours world number one status
Luke Donald put his money where his mouth is and came out on top of the world.
Donald said at the start of the week that he felt like the best player in the world and after a roller-coaster four days at the PGA Championship at Wentworth he proved it.
The pre-tournament hype for the European Tour's flagship event talked up the quality of the field - the top three players in the world, six out of the top seven in the world rankings, all four major champions, most of the European Ryder Cup team. In the end it came down to a straight duel between the world's top two and Donald delivered the crucial blow in a sudden death play-off to topple Lee Westwood.
Donald, 33, becomes the third Englishman after Sir Nick Faldo and Westwood to be crowned world number one and the 15th overall since the rankings were introduced in 1986. Like Westwood before him, though, Donald said that the top spot is flattering but not a goal in itself.
"It's obviously a special accomplishment, something I'll remember forever," Donald reflected. "It's something that will be a great story when I'm an old man telling my grandkids that I was once the best player in the world at golf. It's a little surreal.
"I'm not going to lie, it feels fantastic, but winning is always at the top of the list. Winning is what got me there. A big win at the Match Play and a big win here. I've still got a lot of work to do and a lot of titles to pick up."
Donald says his daughter has helped inspire his rise up to world number one. Photo: Getty
There will be those who say, like they did with Westwood, that a world number one without a major victory is not worthy. But does, for instance, one major title in an otherwise undistinguished career better the feat of being recognised as the most consistent - and therefore, for that spell, the best - player on the planet?
Ultimately, though, majors are the currency in which golf careers deal and Donald's singular aim at the beginning of the year was to contend in all four majors. He was fourth at the Masters and goes to the US Open at Congressional in two weeks on a high.
He has now finished in the top 10 in 13 of his last 14 events, including nine in a row, won the WGC Match Play title in February and was second in the World Match Play Championship last week.
His current run of form and his biggest strokeplay victory to date should now silence the criticism that dogged earlier parts of his career.
Donald, born in Hemel Hempstead and now based in Chicago, made his early mark as a champion collegiate golfer while at Northwestern University in the United States in 1999. He played on the victorious GB & Ireland Walker Cup side that year and again in 2001 before turning pro.
He won his first event, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic on the PGA Tour, in 2002 and added two European Tour titles in 2004. Donald finished third at the Masters on his debut in 2005 and clinched another US win, the Honda Classic, in 2006. In that same year he was also third in the USPGA.
However, then came a fallow spell in terms of title success. Often known as "Plod" for his precise, steady game, he banked life-changing amounts of money (currently more than $22m in the US alone) without further victories - a state of affairs once unfairly termed 'Luke Donald disease'.
But Donald was developing and building slowly, and he finally burst the dam when he captured the 2010 Madrid Masters, the week after blowing the lead on the 17th in the final round of the PGA at Wentworth. He was third in the Wales Open at Celtic Manor straight after that and then played a starring role as a wildcard, winning his third cap, in Europe captain Colin Montgomerie's Ryder Cup side in October 2010. He now has not only won two big titles this season, but leads the money lists in both America and Europe.
Donald's form has coincided with the link-up with with performance coach Dave Alred - ex-guru of England rugby star Jonny Wilkinson - to compliment the work of his swing coach of 14 years Pat Goss. The player also said the birth of his first child Elle last year has been a huge benefit to his life.
"It's been a real blessing to become a father," Donald stated. "My golf has only gone from strength to strength. It's given me a lot more responsibility. I've grown up and become a better person.
"She really is an inspiration to me, just watching her grow, learning new skills, adapting, becoming better at what she is. That's what I'm trying to do at golf, too. Just every day, try to figure out a way to improve. She does that every day." World golf needs to watch out - Donald's wife Diane is expecting their second child in November.
But at Wentworth we saw a different side to Donald, too. No longer the plodder, he can also win ugly. The opening 64 was stunning. The outward 40 on Saturday belonged to the freak show. Wayward off the tee, he spent more time in the trees than Tarzan.
Alred (r) has been helping to transform Donald's game. Pic Getty Images
However, instead of capitulating, Donald drew on the work he has been doing with Alred on performing under pressure - they are trying to instil a mindset that views success as inevitable - and dug deep, pulling off the kind of escapes that were the trademark of the late, great Seve Ballesteros, who won five World Matchplays and the PGA title at Wentworth.
"After an event, such as a bad shot, the most important thing is the next event," preaches Alred.
So blocking out what had gone before, Donald came home in four-under 32.
"That back nine was crucial to the victory," BBC golf commentator Ken Brown said.
"I felt like Seve would have been proud of me," Donald added.
Donald's achievement in reaching the summit of the game also shows that golf has not become all about power. With an average driving distance on the PGA Tour of 277.7 yards, compared to leader JB Holmes' 316 yards, Donald is one of the shorter hitters (156th, in fact).
And, despite the old caricature, he is not that accurate either as some of his play at Wentworth showed - 33rd in driving accuracy with 65.38% of fairways hit. But he possesses a killer short game and ranks third in scrambling - making par or better despite failing to reach the green in regulation.
Donald's search for success has even seen him part company with brother Christian as his caddie last year, replacing him with experienced bagman John McLaren.
And the new high-performance mindset was very much in evidence amid the storm that still swirled around Wentworth about last year's changes to the West Course. Some moaned that it was too difficult, no fun anymore and that new-look 18th has been tricked up. Donald just shrugged.
"It doesn't matter whether or not you like the course, the challenge is to figure out how to get around in the least amount of shots," he said.
Based on the last 12 months, the new strain of 'Luke Donald' disease is worth catching.