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Donald a major failure? It's still far too soon to tell

Alex Dimond April 11, 2012
It's too soon to rule out Luke Donald's Masters chances © Getty Images
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Five players went into last week's Masters tournament with public expectation weighing on their shoulders. To a greater or lesser extent, four of them (Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, TIger Woods and Rory McIlroy) made an impact on the leaderboard - or general storyline of the tournament - at one point or another.

But the other, Luke Donald, world No. 1, was conspicuous by his absence.

Well, that's not strictly true. In fairness, there was probably an hour of uncertainty after his first round on Thursday where his plight was the talk of the media centre, as it quickly became evident that his official score had been posted as a one-over 73, despite everyone who had watched him being sure he had compiled a three-over 75.

In the end, it turned out that a smudge on the faxed copy of his scorecard had resulted in the confusion, not an error on the part of Donald or his playing partners. The Englishman was allowed to continue his tournament but, to all intents and purposes, that was the extent of his contribution to the 76th Masters.

He shot 73 - an actual 73 this time - on Friday, before following that with a round of 75 that left him well out of contention come Saturday evening. The inevitable scoffing - "the world No. 1 who can't contend at, let alone win, a major!" - then came, but even that was muted. His failure wasn't worth spending too much time on, not while the likes of Mickelson and Westwood were in the hunt for that green jacket.

World No. 1 he may have been, but on that Sunday he was an irrelevance.

Woods' inability to contend was big news. McIlroy's meltdown, after dragging back himself towards the top of the leaderboard prior to the third round, was big news. But Donald's struggles were shrugged off.

Predictably, but perhaps not surprisingly, the comparisons soon came to former world No. 1 female tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. The Dane, perhaps most famous now for being McIlroy's girlfriend, was ridiculed for her inability to get to the business-end of a grand slam while on top of the rankings, let alone win one. You feel those comparisons - simplistic, unrefined as they are - are beginning to wear on the 34-year-old.

"I think regardless of ranking I should be contending," Donald said on Sunday, when invited to perform an autopsy on his tournament. "I feel like my game is good enough.

"Obviously my game was good enough to get me to No.1. Obviously that's my focus in my career right now is to get myself into contention and win the big ones. Yeah, it's always disappointing when I don't do it."

Sergio's demons return with a vengeance

Why can't you be happy, Sergio?! © PA Photos
  • What a difference six months make. At the tail end of last year, Garcia was basking in the afterglow of back-to-back victories on the European Tour in Spain. He looked good on the course, he sounded happy off it.
  • "I'm enthusiastic again, I've regained the desire to play the game," he said at the time. "I want to get back where I believe I belong. It's a little like, not being reborn, but coming back to life. I've been through two complicated years on and off the course. They've been tough but good years at the same time. They've helped me to learn a lot about myself, not just in golf, but on a personal level."
  • Fast forward to the first major since then, and there's Garcia ... proclaiming he doesn't have the stones required to win a major.
  • "I'm not good enough," he said on Saturday. "In 13 years I've come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place."
  • It's a shame to hear Sergio talk like that. Most observers can see he does have the game to win a major, and would have done if not for some bad breaks down the years. In many ways his game looks better than ever. This year's Open Championship at Royal Lytham would seem a great chance for him to win. But that won't happen, not unless he can once again exorcise the demons in his head. That's a lot of things - but most of all, it's a shame.

It would be wrong to write off Donald as a major winner, however. As already covered in this column, his position as world No. 1 is one he has fully earned through his results over the last 18 months, especially considering he claimed it back off McIlroy by winning at the Transitions Championship a week after the Northern Irishman had claimed it off him.

But that ranking counts for next to nothing when it comes to major championships. Tiger Woods has won plenty of majors as world No. 1, but then so have the likes of Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton and Shaun Micheel - all well ensconced nearer 1000 in the world rankings than No. 1. On any given week, any player can win.

While not wishing to make excuses for Donald - his 68 in the final round underlines that he should have been better over the first three days - but it is hardly like either the course or conditions at Augusta National last week played into his hands.

With the course - already a stretch for someone of Donald's moderate power - playing wetter and even longer due to the weather beforehand, he was always going to struggle to keep up (length isn't why Bubba Watson won, but it was a contributing factor). With mudballs a constant problem, hitting long-irons into nearly every green gave him very little room for error.

Of course, it didn't help that his short game was unusually imprecise and his putting touch wasn't all there. And yet, despite all that, he still managed to beat both Tiger and Rory over the full four rounds (by two shots).

But Donald has never been one for quick progress; the best amateur in the world, it took him years - nearly a decade, even - to see that pedigree translate fully to the professional tour.

Now world No. 1, maybe he just needs a bit more accumulated experience - and the right golf course - to make that next step up. You can still pretty much count on one hand the number of major championships Donald has entered where he has been expected - with the particular attention and pressure that brings - to contend for the victory.

"You learn," Donald said. "You leave here with more positive feelings … I'll remember that round [of 68] hopefully [at The Masters] next year, and even Thursday when it comes to Olympic [Club, site of this year's US Open] in a couple months. But yeah, I think I'm getting closer.

"It took me a while to learn how to win on the PGA Tour and the European Tour and win consistently. I think it's the same with majors. It's a different level, and it's just taking me a little bit of time to figure it out."

Maybe Donald is correct, maybe he isn't. But it's still far too soon to write off his ability to win a major championship.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk