Yes, Luke Donald Does Care About Winning

Short, crooked driving, not a lack of will, has kept Luke Donald from winning more often. Credit Icon SMI.

Fact: Luke Donald has collected many millions of dollars as he has piled up numerous top-10 finishes while winning very few tournaments during his career.

Fact: It’s awfully nice to make many millions of dollars.

Unfortunately, many observers have put those two facts together to assert that Luke Donald is perfectly content to not win tournaments, even that he doesn’t try all that hard to win tournaments because he’s happy to finish in the top 10 and put a lot of money into his bank account.

There’s a lot wrong with this line of thinking, starting with the mistaken notion that the best way to make a lot of money on the PGA Tour is to consistently finish in the top 10. Actually, Donald would have collected MORE money by winning more often while having fewer top-10s and more missed cuts. First prize for a $5 million tournament is $900,000; sixth place pays $180,000. That’s plenty top-heavy enough to incentivize winning.

But what’s even more wrong is to make assertions about what is inside a man’s mind and heart. Just because someone hasn’t won doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about winning. It’s quite possible that the opposite is the case (the “trying too hard” syndrome), though in Donald’s case (as we shall see) the cause is more physical than mental.

“It’s a long time since I’ve tried to play for money, you know,” Donald said after winning the WGC-Accenture Match Play on Sunday, his first PGA Tour win in five years and his third overall in a career of a little more than nine years. “Maybe as a rookie you think about making your Tour card and making cuts. But it’s been a long time since that.

“I solely try to focus on winning tournaments. I felt like I hadn’t won my fair share for as good a player as I felt I was and could be. It was disappointing, yeah. It was frustrating to me. I think winning in Europe took a little bit off. Obviously it was a little bit of a smaller event, obviously not a field like this. But to come here and compete against the best players in the world and win the trophy is very gratifying.”

And later in the interview: “I’ve kind of been depicted as someone that is very happy contending, picking up checks, but doesn’t really care about winning. And that is really—that’s as far away from the truth as it can be.”

The implication is that Donald is too conservative, doesn’t take the chances necessary to win. Well, it is true that he doesn’t go for par-5s in two or try to drive many par-4s in one as often as most. But that has nothing to do with heart and everything to do with the fact that the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Englishman is a short hitter. The reason he doesn’t go for the greens is because he can’t reach them.

Nor does it help that in addition to being much shorter than average (177th in driving distance in 2010), he’s also less straight than average (120th in hitting fairways). That further cuts down on his opportunities.

It stands to reason that, from where he drives the ball, Donald will have a harder time making birdies than other players—particularly on par-5s, which is where longer hitting pros do most of their damage. The stats show that he has one of the best short games on Tour, whether it’s putting, chipping, or bunker shots. But his driving leaves him so far behind the 8-ball that he’s going to have a harder time going deep under par, and that’s what you have to do to win.

It might seem like a paradox that Donald has a great record in match play—now 16-6 at the Accenture and 8-2-1 in the Ryder Cup (including 2-1 in singles). But it actually makes sense.

Donald’s lack of length keeps him from being a lights-out scorer, but his great short game balances out his erratic driving and enables him to be a consistently good scorer from round to round and week to week.

The consistent player has a hard time scoring low enough to beat the entire field for 72 holes. Out of 144 or 156 players in the tournament, there’s a high degree of probability that one of the more explosive scorers will have a hot week and shoot low enough to win the tournament. But in match play, the consistently good player has to beat only one player at a time, and he’s got a very good chance to win each match. It doesn’t matter if someone else in the field shoots a 62, unless he’s unlucky enough for it to happen to be his opponent.

So, I’m not going to say that his match-play record shows that Luke Donald is a tough-as-nails competitor with the heart of a lion. Maybe it just shows that he is a consistent performer with a game good enough to beat most comers on any given day. But I will say this: his record in the WGC Match Play and Ryder Cup shows at the very least that he is not a choker.

That’s the second criticism that Donald has endured—not just that he doesn’t care about winning but also that he can’t stand the heat. When you look at his PGA Tour record, it’s easy to see how he acquired this reputation. He came into the Match Play with just two wins and 43 top-10 finishes in 199 career starts.

He’s had a bit more success in Europe, where he has three wins in limited play (a graduate of Northwestern University near Chicago, Donald has concentrated on the U.S. Tour, playing in Europe just enough to keep his Ryder Cup eligibility.) Overall, he has three wins in 52 European starts and now three wins in 188 starts in the U.S. (counting majors and WGC events on the continent they were held).

It is fair to say that Donald should have won at least a little bit more even with his lack of length. He has 10 runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour, which suggests that he could have converted more victory chances.

But in trying to win more, he might have gone about it in the wrong way. “I decided to try to hit the ball a little bit farther, to try to catch up to some of my peers, and I think it made my swing get off kilter. And it’s taken a good two or three years for it to get back to almost where I need it to be,” he said. Nor did it help that he missed half the year in 2008 due to an injured wrist that required surgery.

Donald would probably be better served trying to get straighter off the tee rather than trying for more power. That would enable him to hit more greens, make more birdies, and, presumably, win more often.

Donald made plenty of birdies in winning the Match Play at Dove Mountain in the Arizona desert—32 over the course of six rounds. He was the first player to never trail in a single match in the 13-year history of the tournament, the first never to have to play the 18th hole, and he required the least amount of holes (73 in five rounds) to reach the finals.

Over the course of six rounds, Donald clearly outplayed everyone in the field. But if it had been a four-round, stroke-play tournament, it’s not clear that he would have won. Estimating his stroke-play score, Donald would have been 17-under for 60 holes in the first four rounds. But Bubba Watson was on fire early, too. He would have been 17-under for 61 holes in the first four rounds—maybe even better than that because his opponents conceded three holes before it even got to the point of Watson being put down for a score on the official tally.

So, had it been stroke play, the result would have been determined by what happened on the extra holes that they didn’t have to play over those first four rounds. We could have been hailing Watson as a multiple winner on the West Coast swing, and deriding Donald as a player who just doesn’t know how to win or even care if he did.

But Donald did win, defeating the world’s new No. 1, Martin Kaymer, in the final to boot. Donald collected $1.4 million for the victory, but you can bet that the trophy meant more to him than the money.

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