PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — At almost the same time that Jason Day and Jordan Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama were teeing off at the Genesis Open in a continuation of an ongoing battle for world golf supremacy, Luke Donald was finishing up a 3-under 68 in front of a dozen or so onlookers at Riviera Country Club.
His wife was there. So were a couple of guys tagging along because they went to the same college as Donald. There were a few others, but not enough to crowd a green, let alone block anyone’s view of the former world No. 1.
Before Spieth, before Rory McIlroy, before Dustin Johnson, there was Luke Donald – the heir apparent. While he wasn’t the player who ended Tiger Woods’ five-year reign in 2010, he was the first player in the post-Tiger era to grab a hold of it for longer than a cup of coffee.
For 40 straight weeks Donald ruled the golf world, a stretch that, since Greg Norman in 1995, hadn’t been matched by anyone other than Tiger.
Whereas the hallmark of Tiger’s reign was dominating victory after dominating victory, Donald’s key was his consistency. He won only twice during that stretch, but he nearly always had himself in contention.
In total, he sat at world No. 1 for 56 weeks, a total only five men have bettered since the inception of the rankings in 1986.
But while Donald’s rise to the top of the world rankings cannot be described as meteoric, his fall can be. The consistency that fed his game faded in 2013. He’d finish in the top five one week, outside the top 40 the next. After finishing eighth at the U.S. Open that year, he missed the cut at the British and the PGA, and by year’s end he’d dropped to No. 17 in the world.
Now, in 2017, Luke Donald is the 94th-ranked player in the world. He’s 39, almost five years removed from his last victory, and because he’s not ranked in the top 50, is forced to qualify for the majors.
So while a 3-under 68 that puts him four strokes off the lead (Sam Saunders is at 7-under) on a Thursday might not seem like much, it’s something when you’re trying to slog your way back to relevance.
“I want to get back in the mix of being a top player and being talked about. I want to get back there,” Donald said after his opening round. “It’s not fun grinding to make cuts – grind to just get by. I want to be consistent and get chances to win week in and week out.”
The good part about Thursday’s round was the seven birdies he carded, more than everyone in the field save Saunders. The bad were the four bogies on the back nine that kept him from going really low. It’s the kind of inconsistency that’s led to his free fall, which has put him outside the top 50, which forces him to qualify for majors.
It’s a first-world problem, for sure, but in this profession it’s a gut check, maybe even a punchier one after having lived in the penthouse. Because when you know what it takes to be No. 1, you have a better idea of how far you are from it when you’re no longer there anymore. This had Donald not so long ago thinking about quitting.
“My confidence had taken a big knock and I asked myself if I wanted to continue doing this,” Donald told The Telegraph last January. “I wasn’t enjoying it, finding it so very hard and could not see much light at the end of the tunnel. But then I told myself not to be a baby, to grow up and realize how lucky I was. I was still playing golf for a living.”
Who knows if that sort of perspective will relieve some of the pressure? It didn’t last year, when his ranking slipped again, from 77th to 81st to where he is now, No. 94.
There’s no denying him what he’s already accomplished in the game. He’s won an NCAA championship, is the first golfer ever to lead both the PGA and the European PGA Tour in winnings in the same year and is part of a very exclusive club of players who can say they were the No. 1-ranked player in the world.
Now, though, he’s forced to take a very realistic approach to his future.
“World rankings isn’t a goal of mine, other than being in the top 50, because that’s the magic number in terms of opening up your schedule,” he said Thursday, standing next to Riviera’s elevated clubhouse. “The focus is to win a tournament and everything will take care of itself.”
Down below, in the cavern Riviera cuts between a couple of tony L.A. neighborhoods, Day and Spieth and Matsuyama were doing their thing, only on this day not quite as well as Donald. It’s but one day. Tomorrow is another, that is if rain that’s turned Los Angeles into South Seattle doesn’t wash everything out completely.
Whenever play resumes, it will be another opportunity for Donald – another chance to right whatever’s gone wrong, which is still something.