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Luke Donald reclaims No. 1 ranking, sets sights on major title

Brian Murphy
Yahoo Sports
Luke Donald reclaims No. 1 ranking, sets sights on major title
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Luke Donald celebrates winning a four-way playoff for his first PGA Tour victory since last October

So here's a problem in the golf world today: What do we do with all those "Rory: Number One and Here to Stay!" T-shirts, hats, visors and coffee mugs?

Maybe all that gear gets shipped off to a foreign country, like all the pre-printed merchandise for the team that loses the Super Bowl. Or perhaps it's relegated to the dustbin of history, where surely there still sits never-before-seen "Sergio Garcia: Tiger Slayer!" T-shirts from the early 2000s.

This is the conundrum Luke Donald has presented us.

Just two weeks after we penned odes to the reign of Rory McIlroy as the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Rankings, certain a new era had arrived and guaranteeing the Next Great Thing's long-term hold on the spot, Donald went and won the Transitions Championship at Innisbrook in a playoff, and vaulted back to No. 1.

He did it with characteristic calm and lack of fanfare, too. No histrionics, no trash-talk in the press. He drafted behind Padraig Harrington's Thursday 61 and Ernie Els' Sunday run to the top of the leaderboard, happy to be the forgotten guy once again. And when the time called for it, he hit a 7-iron from the rough to six feet on the first playoff hole and buried the putt for birdie.

He didn't turn to the camera and raise his index finger, the way athletes used to do in the 1970s, although he could have. Rather, he reclaimed No. 1 with all the unperturbed air of a man who finds his seat taken, politely taps the seat-stealer on the shoulder and says flatly: "Excuse me, sir. I was sitting there. Thank you."

The real question, of course, is how long this will last. The Official World Golf Rankings, while fun, can be statistically odd. For example, it's not like McIlroy went out and shot 82-87-MC to lose his spot. He didn't even play this week. Being the good-natured lad he is, the news didn't cause him to go full Russell Crowe rage on the nearest hotel room.

Instead, he tweeted: "Well, I enjoyed it while it lasted!" – again proving he is the anti-Tiger. Tiger Woods, when he had his No. 1 spot yanked from him, probably headed to the gym for a seven-hour workout and hit balls until dawn.

When Woods became No. 1 in the world in 1997, he traded it around with Els and David Duval before holding it for, like, 600 years. So, McIlroy can win back the top spot as soon as his next event – the Masters.

Speaking of majors, Luke Donald was open about his lack of major titles immediately after his win at Innisbrook. It's that "oh-fer" in the four biggest tournaments of the year that have most golf fans thinking McIlroy is the better long-term bet, given that record-shattering U.S. Open last year, not to mention his 63-hole lead at Augusta National last April. Donald doesn't have that major sheen, his best efforts being a tie-third at the 2005 Masters, a tie-third at the 2006 PGA Championship and a tie-fourth at last year's Masters. Despite an incredible run of 23 top-10s in his last 43 starts, he knows it's the elephant in the room, and fed the pachyderm moments after he holed out for the title in a chat with commentator Steve Sands.

"It's another step in the right direction toward hopefully winning a major," Donald said, his fifth PGA Tour win only about 60 seconds old. "I've achieved a lot in my career, but that's the missing step."

[Related: New insights put twist on Tiger Woods' obsession with Navy SEALs]

He may not have a big shiny trophy from Augusta National, the USGA, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club or the PGA of America, but he's got another title: Luke Donald, killer of Rory McIlroy love-fest narratives, and gosh darn Numero Uno player on earth. The plot thickens.

Scorecard of the week

65-70-67-68 – 18-under 270, Yani Tseng, winner, LPGA Founders Cup, Wildfire Golf Club, Phoenix, AZ

I provide that scorecard to you as a public service. No, not because Yani Tseng did it yet again, burnishing her credentials as the most dominant player in the world, male or female, but because somebody needs to know Tseng won. After all, The Golf Channel pulled its live coverage before the event was over. It's OK, though. They sated our desire for an exciting finish to the women's event with tape-delayed Champions Tour golf.

Doh!

As a result, while Tseng was doing live battle with top rival Ai Miyazato and Na Yeon Choi, we were watching Mark O'Meara tap in at an event that already happened.

Now, I'm no Don Ohlmeyer. Big-time sports TV executives probably have 10,000 reasons why they couldn't show the LPGA to its conclusion, and I'm sure all of them revolve around the Almighty Dollar. I get it. I like money, too.

But surely, isn't there a way we can reach common ground, where the TV exec still drives the latest Mercedes Benz, keeps his summer home in the Hamptons and we can get the live golf?

Just sayin', is all. And way to go, Yani. Not only did she have to fight weather delays and darkness – barely finishing before sundown – but also she had to send out word of her triumph via carrier pigeon.

Broadcast moment of the week

"Did you have the confidence to make that putt before there/ – commentator Steve Sands to a rattled Ernie Els, shortly after Els missed a four-footer to miss out on the Transitions Championship playoff.

"Yeah, I guess so. I just pulled it a bit." – An ashen-faced Els, after an awkward pause, delivered with the gusto of a man on death row.

Oh, Ernie.

Ernie, Ernie, Ernie, Ernie.

If you've been around golf, or follow golf, or love golf, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't like Ernie Els' game. The Big Easy's swing is so mellifluous that it has been known to hypnotize golf fans into a state of mesmerized catatonia. His honest personality, the money he's raised for autism after his son's diagnosis, his decorated career with three majors and a World Golf Hall of Fame berth … all evidence that Ernie is easy to root for.

That's why this was so hard to watch. Els has lost the plot on the putting greens, so much so that he's gone to the belly putter. For Els, once one of the great rollers of the ball, this comedown is so out of place, it's like watching Mariano Rivera announce he'll begin pitching underhand.

Worse, the Big Easy isn't even qualified for the 2012 Masters. He's fallen from the top 50 in the Official World Golf Rankings and didn't earn an exemption through other means.

The last Masters without Ernie Els? 1993.

Els is about as vital a player to the Masters scene as any non-winner in recent history. His runner-up finishes in 2000 and particularly in 2004 were the stuff of heartbreak, and in five consecutive starts from 2000-04, he never finished out of the top six.

[Related: Did commentator cross the line when interviewing Ernie Els?]

The only way he can get in, essentially, between now and then is to win an event and earn an automatic exemption. Considering 144 of the world's best players show up at every golf event, the odds of summoning up a "W" by just pulling into the parking lot, particularly for a player who hasn't won in the U.S. since 2010, are not overwhelmingly sanguine.

So, imagine the thrill that charged through the golf world when Els made birdie on six of his first 12 holes Sunday and blitzed the leaderboard. He had a one-shot lead on No. 16, and if he could par his way in, one of the year's best stories would be penned.

Instead, here's what happened: On 16, Els missed a four-foot putt for birdie. Ouch. On 17, a par-3, he pumped his tee shot "right of right," as on-course commentator Dottie Pepper grimly informed us. He made bogey. Now, in a tie at 13-under, Els could still make par on 18 and join the playoff. You know, have a banana, drink one of them fancy water drinks, mop the brow and head back out with a new lease on life.

That is, until he missed a four-footer for par. Didn't even touch the hole, as a matter of fact. Bogey. Out of the playoff. No win for Ernie.

I was stunned he agreed to an interview with Sands so shortly thereafter, and in retrospect, he probably shouldn't have. Els was in no mental state to process what had just happened.

So, when Sands asked him what happened, Els seemed baffled, bummed and bent. It was a tough spot for Sands, and when he asked the follow-up about having confidence in his putting, Els let out a sort of bemused, distracted chuckle, as if he either couldn't believe the question or couldn't believe how badly he missed the four-footer.

In the move of the day, Sands mercy-killed the interview. The whole thing probably lasted about 20 seconds, felt like 20 years, and gave us more insight into Els' world than we could ever get from watching him play.

Mulligan of the week

Could this be any bigger of a no-brainer?

Let's all march back out to the 18th green at Innisbrook, place Els' golf ball four feet from the cup, step back to give Ernie the Knute Rockne speech, remind him that he's Ernie Freakin' Els, tell him there's some peach cobbler waiting for him on the veranda at Augusta National if he makes it and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

One week ago at this time, guys like me were hyperventilating over the possibility that Woods was really, really injured. Like, really injured.

For the greatest athlete in golf history to walk off the golf course on a Sunday, flexing his left leg, the same leg with four knee operations, raised a flag as red as one of Tiger's Sunday shirt collection.

Would he miss the Masters? Would he need another surgery? Is Tiger … done?

One week later, Tiger's message to the golf world: "Just kidding!"

He couldn't be healthier, if you're judging by his playing schedule. Not only did Tiger assure everyone he will, of course, be at Augusta National, not only is he going to play this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, but also he's going to play the gosh darned Tavistock Cup Monday and Tuesday! The Tavistock Cup? Really, Tiger?

This leaves open the following interpretations from last Sunday: A) Tiger is an incredibly fast healer; B) Tiger is so scared by any pain in his left leg, he reacts in dramatic fashion; C) Tiger felt the slightest twinge in his Achilles, was bored with being out of contention, hit one in the water and decided to call it day, go home and watch Selection Sunday.

Only "A" is a decent answer, if you're Tiger.

At any rate, we get El Tigre on our TVs this week and at a place he's won a whopping six times. Phil Mickelson is playing, also. Nice. As for those dueling Number Ones? Both McIlroy and Donald are taking a powder this week so they can trade pleasant and upbeat texts and tweets about the top spot.

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