On the day his Walker Cup partner and fellow 41-year-old Paul Casey defended his Valspar title, Luke Donald enjoyed his own special week in Florida.
Donald featured in Hawaii in the second week in January but this was the first time since that he has trusted his back – he had a herniated disc last year – to start another tournament.
At the end of it all he produced a top 10 as he bids to make the most of a medical exemption and 15 starts to regain his PGA Tour membership.
When Donald set Europe off in the singles at Medinah in 2012 he looked the most obvious and comfortable lead-off man for the foreseeable Ryder Cup Sundays. With the minimum of fuss he took Bubba Watson down 2&1 which reflected little about how one-sided the match actually was.
Aside from Ian Poulter and his bulging pupils Donald was Europe’s lucky charm – played 4 won 4. He even has two wins from two Walker outings which is pretty much unheard of.
But that was his last involvement with the Ryder Cup, aside from his vice-captaincy duties in France last September. The same is true of Graeme McDowell, he led Europe off in 2014 and there’s every chance that he will also have gone out on an impressive yet premature high.
Longevity should never be presumed in golf but Donald, with the rock-solid short game, easy-on-the-eye swing and easy-going manner looked set to continue to mix it with the big boys for years to come.
Some people tend to get a bit sniffy about Donald and Martin Kaymer getting to the top of the world rankings tree probably because they were following in the footsteps of Tiger Woods.
But, while Kaymer’s reign was short-lived, Donald’s was as solid as his bunker play. He held the position for 40 straight weeks, and 56 in total, and he did it without much, relatively speaking, to speak of in terms of major heroics.
Going into the Masters in 2011 Donald was the World No. 4 – Kaymer was top, Lee Westwood second, Phil Mickelson third and McDowell fifth – and many people’s fancy as the next European to win a major.
But it would be Rory McIlroy, on four occasions, Darren Clarke, Justin Rose, who Donald was paired with at Merion on Sunday, Kaymer, Danny Willett, Henrik Stenson, his great friend Sergio Garcia, and Francesco Molinari last July who got their hands on the game’s four biggest trophies.
Donald has only featured in one major since the end of 2016.
This week we have the top 64 players in the world, give or take, at the WGC-Match Play – the last time Donald, the 2011 champion, featured in this event was 2014.
Going into this week the 41-year-old was ranked an astonishing 919th in the world thanks to his back problems. Last year there were just two cuts made in eight starts before having to shut it down on the PGA Tour, he would play in Europe twice straight after the Ryder Cup, and in 2017 there were eight straight missed cuts which came, bizarrely, on the back a second place at Hilton Head.
It’s been a long road the last 12 months or so, just very thankful to be out competing again – a nice bonus that I’m playing well too! Ps if you want a short game lesson from me, my price just tripled ? https://t.co/qLLduNzA8p
— Luke Donald (@LukeDonald) March 22, 2019
Now the plan is to just stay healthy, a familiar refrain from one or two former World No. 1s who have now edged past 40. The past year has seen Donald spend his time with his wife and three girls rather than follow the PGA Tour around, something he has done since 2002, as he looked to come back from the disc problem.
He chose not to undergo surgery, instead having stem-cell therapy, which meant he would then need three months of complete rest.
“I’m still limited reps, I’m not just going out there and beating balls for six hours a day like I used to and playing every day. So I’m having to be a little bit more efficient with my practice and just be very diligent about the stuff I’m doing with my back,” the Englishman said.
“So two to three hours a day I’m working on exercises for my back and working out and all that kind of stuff and then add ago little bit of practice in. Backs are tricky, I’ve gone through a lot of different types of treatments and some have worked, some haven’t, but I feel like I’m on the right path now.”
He has 15 starts to get his membership back. This was a huge step forward.