Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tortoises can win the race as often as the hares

TIGER WOODS had been a professional golfer for just 10 months when he reached the top of the world rankings in June 1997.

It took Luke Donald 10 years to complete the same journey. And people still ask why his fellow players call him ‘Plod’.

Woods cut a swathe through golf with his stratospheric ascent, and had already won twice by the time he announced himself to the wider sporting world with his astonishing victory at the 1997 Masters by a record margin of 12 strokes.

Donald rose without trace, securing his first PGA Tour win, against a journeyman field, at the low-key and rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic in November 2002.

Yet while comparisons with the phenomenon that was the young Woods seem to do Donald few favours, there are few doubts in the minds of his fellow professionals that the 33-year-old Englishman is worthy of being regarded as the best player on earth right now.

Part of the fascination of golf is that there are so many different ways to win, so many routes to the top. The tortoises can win the race just as often as the hares.

It was ever thus with Donald. The world of golf sat up and took note when he won the NCAA Individual championship, the highest accolade in US college golf, in 1999, beating Woods’ scoring record in the process, but in almost every other regard his career has been a slow-burning fuse.

Peter McEvoy, Donald’s captain in two Walker Cups, once recalled that he had to battle to persuade officials in charge of selecting the England amateur team that the player was worthy of a cap, so little impact had he made until then.

“There were a lot of votes against him and I had to push for his inclusion,” said McEvoy. “After two years he proved to be the best of his generation. The same thing happened when he went to college in America; after two years, he was again the best.”

In a world of brash wannabes, Donald has always been distinguished by his calm, a sense of serene self-containment. Many top players lurch between anguish and exultation as they make their way round a course, but Donald has an imperturbability that is almost other-worldly. He is no automaton, but neither is he the victim of his emotions.

We will never know whether the pressure of the occasion led to Lee Westwood dumping his ball in the water by the 18th green in his play-off against Donald on Sunday evening. But we can say with some confidence that Donald’s cool-headedness in the most ferociously demanding circumstances helped him place his ball five feet from the flag from an almost identical position.

It was a shot deserving of all the bounty that came his way. It won him a cheque for just over £650,000 and it leap-frogged him ahead of Westwood in the world rankings. It also confirmed beyond all doubt that the axis of world golf has tilted towards England.

When Donald turned professional in August 2001, there was just one English player – Westwood – in the world’s top 100; this morning, there are four in the top 12.

As Martin Laird, ranked 25th, is the highest-placed Scot, it is tempting to make much of the fact that Donald once claimed to be “half-Scottish” on the basis that his father was born in Stranraer.

Tempting, too, to forget the fact he has played down the connection on other occasions. In truth, he now occupies a realm where nationality becomes almost meaningless, save for its glorious expression at the Ryder Cup every two years.

With a stack of long-term sponsors’ contracts – it has been said that his Mizuno visor alone nets him £1m per year – the amiable Donald is almost a caricature of the golfer as the perfect commercial vehicle. In other regards, however, he is very different to his peers.

On the US Tour, the vast majority of players base themselves in the sunbelt states of the south, his main home is in Chicago, a city that suits his cosmopolitan tastes. He studied fine art at Chicago’s Northwestern University, is a gifted painter and avid collector of art.

Yet until now, he has been a less than avid collector of tournament wins. His stealthy rise to the top of the global game has been based on consistency, and his last strokeplay victory prior to Sunday’s win at Wentworth had been almost a year ago. Nor has he set the heather alight at major championships, finishing better than 10th just four times in 31 events.

But if self-doubt has played a part in that then it should have been obliterated by what happened at Wentworth. If taking the slow road to the top has been one consistent feature of Donald’s career, being the dominant figure once he got there has been another. On Sunday evening, he was asked whether he had set any goals for the year. “Yeah,” he said quickly, “to contend in all four majors.

“I have a lot more to accomplish,” he continued. “And hopefully many more victories in me. Hopefully, I can be a worthy No.1 for a few weeks.”

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Westwood Wins Again

Lee Westwood came through Sunday with a final-round, 5-under 67 to win the Ballantine's Championship. The 38-year-old Brit ended up at 12-under 276. The event, co-sponsored by the Asian and European tours, was held at Blackstone Golf Club near Seoul, South Korea.

The win was the second straight for the No. 1-ranked player in the world following his victory in the Indonesia Masters last week. Westwood needed to finish in the top-five in Korea to prevent Martin Kaymer from overtaking him in the World Golf Rankings.

"It feels great," Westwood told Sky Sports. "I must admit it was fairly nerve-wracking sitting in there watching people play. I know how my parents, wife and family feel now at home when I'm playing.

"Obviously you never wish ill on anyone but I'm delighted to have won the tournament because it was [a] good, solid round this afternoon and put pressure on everyone else," he added.

"The world rankings are a reflection of how you play. I've been playing well this year but not producing the results until the last two weeks. The last two weeks I've started making some putts and stayed calm under pressure, doing the things I needed to do at the right time.

"I've won two in a row before but it's still very special," he added. "It is tough to come down from a win and get yourself refocused. But the more experienced you get and the more you put yourself in those positions, the easier it is to do."

Finishing a shot behind was Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez (71), who had a chance to force a sudden-death playoff but missed his 15-foot birdie try. Another stroke back was Korean Sang-Hyun Park. American Dustin Johnson (69) ended up in solo fourth.