Eye On the Tiger

Winning the Honda Classic was big, but Luke Donald has a more ambitious goal
March 20, 2006

This first partyou probably saw on TV: England's Luke Donald in the middle of the 18thfairway, nearly suppertime for the South Florida early-birders on a lusciousSunday. A well-curled visor on his bleached head. Swathed in Polo. His teachingpro brother on the bag. A Mizuno five-iron in his hands. The hole 199 yardsaway. He had two potential outcomes, really: 1) Hit it somewhere on the green,take two putts for par, win the first 72-hole PGA Tour event of your life by ashot. 2) Hit a crazy double-cross, yank-hook off the sunroof of the bright-red,brand-new Honda parked greenside, pull a Van de Velde, wind up in a playoff orworse.

Slim-manLuke--Ryder Cupper past and future, Northwestern grad, artist, highbrowgolfer--drew a circle around outcome 1. And then some. He hit a smokin' ironshot, held the finish while the reviews started coming in, drained the ensuingfour-footer for birdie, raised the $990,000 cardboard winner's check, saw hisWorld Ranking go up to No. 10, came into the pressroom and talked about hisultimate goal: to become the No. 1 player in the world. It can happen, he said,"if you get into the mentality that you don't have to do anything more, yousimply have to do what you know how to do." Much wisdom there.

The Kingdom'sfunny when it comes to golfing smarts. In modern times Britain has produced twomajor-winning simpletons (see ball, hit ball) in Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam,and two major-winning eggheads, Nick Faldo and Tony Jacklin. The bet here isthat Donald will win a U.S. Open and a Players Championship before HenryAaron's career home run record is broken, and he'll do it the way Tony and Nickdid it and the way Tiger does it: with superior thinking, which always goeswell with a classic swing.

This part youdidn't see on TV: Friday, lunchtime, the wind blowing hard off the ocean acrossI-95, around the McMansions and over the Sunrise course at the Country Club atMirasol, five miles from Palm Beach. Donald on the 11th hole of his secondround, maybe 15 feet for par, one over for the tournament. You can three-puttfrom three feet in a wind like that, let alone from 15. Especially on adevelopment course like Mirasol, where the greens are almost Augusta-like, fastand swoopy, dry as your morning throat. Had Donald made a bogey or worse there,he would have been fighting to make the cut the rest of the way in. He made theputt. That's what Tiger does, it seems, darn near every time--holes thosemedium-length par putts. Woods has been saying for a decade now that putts forpar are huge for the big mo, as Bush the elder called it. After that, Donaldfinished the second round by going birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie,par. Yikes, or if you prefer, 30 for his second nine, six under par.

They say youcan't win a tournament on a Friday, but who are they anyhow? Donald played adifficult, windblown, crunchy course with scores of 72, 67, 68 and 69. If youplay a hard course that well, you can control your head like a Hale Irwin or aLee Janzen, you can keep your ball in play, and you should contend in thehardest, meanest, nastiest tournament of them all: the U.S. Open. Especially atWinged Foot (come June) or Oakmont (come June '07). No Brit has won a U.S. Opensince Jacklin in 1970, and the last to win the Players was Lyle in 1987.Donald, not long but extremely accurate, could win at Sawgrass later thismonth. Fred Funk did a year ago, slapping it a mere 250ish at age 48.

Donald wasplaying a home game last week. He speaks with a suburban London accent, has anAmerican girlfriend with a Greek surname whom he met at Northwestern, and ownsa year-round home in Chicago. He also has a winter home near the Bear's Club,where he's a member. It's a Nicklaus hangout with a fabulous practice fieldabout five miles from Mirasol. Donald does spots for the Royal Bank of Scotlandwith Jack and appears in Polo ads with honorary Briton Tom Watson. As the kidssay, he's got the whole thing going on.

In 2007, whenDonald defends his Honda Classic title, it'll be a Nicklaus operation. Thetournament will move again--to its seventh course since it originated in 1972as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic--going across PGA Boulevard fromMirasol to PGA National, a Fazio course with Nicklaus's renovation fingerprintsall over it. (Bring your high ball.) The Tour has cut ties with the ClassicFoundation, the charitable group that founded the event and ran it through thisyear. Starting next year it'll still be called the Honda Classic, but the groupbehind it will be the Nicklaus Family Foundation. (And in otherkeeping-up-with-the-Joneses news, beginning next year the old Bay Hill eventwill be renamed the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Coincidence? We think not.)Maybe Jack can get Tiger to play the event. Maybe. Woods hasn't played Hondasince 1993, when he and dad Earl were welcomed personally by the event'slongtime director, Cliff Danley. Danley began working the tournament in '73, asGleason's away-we-go cart driver, but with the switch, Danley, 57, is out of ajob.

"If there's achoice for the PGA Tour, they're always going to follow the money," Danleysaid on Sunday as Donald played in. Danley, a towering man who never passed awhoopee cushion he didn't squeeze, is a beloved figure to many players of acertain age. Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Mike (no relation) Donald andMark O'Meara played last week at least in part because they wanted to paytribute to him. "If you said to Cliff, 'How about parking spaces near theclubhouse for past champions?' it happened," said O'Meara, the 1995 HondaClassic champion. At the closing ceremony on the 18th green on Sundayevening--car keys, giant check, tournament hardware, smiling winner,etc.--there was more emotion for Danley than for anyone else.

You wouldn't callLuke Donald a charismatic golfer, but he gets high marks for style. Way moreimportant than that, he's smart, and on Sunday he was as tough as a five-quidsteak. He made a five-footer to save par on 15 and saved par again on 16 with apitch shot and a 17-footer. All the while, two players not afraid to win,Tiger-beater Billy Mayfair and Match Play champion Geoff Ogilvy, were hangingaround, hoping for a gift that Donald never gave them.

Just the idea ofDonald ever having a higher World Ranking than Woods makes you wonder what's inthe Gatorade over at the Bear's Club. (Woods is, golfwise, stronger, tougher,smarter--and he has more shots.) But you have to give Donald credit: How manyAmerican players are even willing to think such a thought, let alone voiceit?

"You have tostart by believing that you're the best player in the world," Donald saidon Sunday, in his measured way. "Can I beat Tiger in any given round? Sure.So why can't I beat him in a tournament?"

Maybe he will atnext year's Honda, if not before. Last week, anyway, he beat 135 guys. In themarch to world domination, it was a start.


• Annika Wins Her 67th page G11
• MY SHOT A No G(H)O in Hartford page G16

"You have to start by believing that you're thebest player in the world," Donald said. "Can I beat Tiger in any givenround? Sure. SO WHY CAN'T I BEAT HIM IN A TOURNAMENT?"

PHOTOPhotographs by David Walberg IRONHORSE
Ranked only 156th in driving distance (280.0 yards), Donald is the shortestwinner on Tour this year.
Mayfair, 39, last won in 1998 but was on the Honda leader board all week andwound up tied for third.
PHOTOPhotographs by David Walberg THECONTENDER
David Toms, who finished a shot behind Woods at Doral, was only two backagainst Donald at Mirasol.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)