PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Luke Donald’s graph on the Official World Golf Ranking website reminds me of a stock I once owned, Gemstar. It ran up from $24 to $92 a share, as I recall, then suddenly cratered into the abyss. I bailed out too late. My chute didn’t open.
The line on Donald’s OWGR graph that charts his ranking this century also has a Gemstar-like quality. Its downward angle is not a softly-sloping rollercoaster; it’s a sheer White Cliffs of Dover drop.
Donald ranks 919th , a sharp drop just since the end of 2018, when he was No. 609, and far below the 2012 horizon when he was No. 1 on earth. (Gemstar flashback. Shudder. Moving bravely on…)
Donald is a member of golf’s most exclusive club. Only 23 players have ascended to No. 1 in the world since the rankings began in 1986. Phil Mickelson never got there. Neither did Curtis Strange, Davis Love III, Paul Azinger or three-time major champ Padraig Harrington.
It doesn’t matter that Donald is the most surprising member of this club or the shortest hitter among them, either. It matters only that he got there. His style of play in the thick of the bomb-and-gouge era only adds to the magnitude of his accomplishment. Donald, 41, of England, won five times on the PGA Tour and six times in Europe.
Back troubles have been behind Donald’s most recent plummet. That, plus life, a common intrusion for players who start families in their 30s and soon find that golf pales in interest to domestic matters. He married, has two children, ages 9 and 7, and he has thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them at home in suburban Chicago.
Maybe 919th is rock bottom in his curve. With luck, Donald finally might be on the upswing. He enjoyed a delightful Thursday at the Valspar Championship. Donald held a share of the first-round lead for most of the morning before bogeying the 18th hole for a nonetheless satisfying 4-under 67, always a good score at Innisbrook Resort’s challenging Copperhead Course and only one off the pace (scores). He won here in 2012, when it was called the Transitions Championship.
This is Donald’s first appearance since early January at the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he shot par and missed the cut. His back flared up again, so he cautiously benched himself until it felt better and hasn’t competed until now. He’s had a herniated disk and has been taking therapy and undergoing treatments. “Some worked; some didn’t,” Donald said with a familiar grin.
Last year, he told The Guardian newspaper of the U.K. that his initial fall from grace happened because he listened to too many people and changed too many things, including changing coaches a year and a half after being the best player in the world.
Donald’s tale is a reminder about the fragility of a golfer’s skill level. An injury can disrupt it completely. So can a change in equipment or technique. Jason Day hasn’t been quite the same since tweaking his back. Jordan Spieth went winless in 2018 after chasing the Grand Slam all the way to the 72nd hole at the British Open in 2015.
Day and Spieth also reached No. 1. Day held it for a total of 51 weeks in 2015-17; Spieth, for 26 in 2015-16. Neither could match Donald, who fought off Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood to be No. 1 for a total of 56 weeks in 2011-12.
It is rightly a source of pride for Donald. When reminded of it Thursday, he didn’t have to be prompted about how long he owned that position.
“There’s a lot that goes into getting to No. 1,” Donald said. “It’s a whole body of work. I was proud to get there and stay there a pretty good number of weeks – 56 speaks to great consistency. But you’re not going to be judged on that in the end. You’ll be judged on majors.”
I thought Europeans were judged only by how many Ryder Cups they won, I said, repeating a party line that European Ryder Cuppers love to mention.
That made the major-less Donald smile. “I’ve never lost one of those,” he said.
This is a prime opportunity to reflect on just how good Donald was. He got the most out of his game, something in the mold of Tom Kite or Bernhard Langer. His side was 4-0 in Ryder Cups, and his match record was 10-4-1.
Donald is 5-0 in Ryder Cups, if you count his turn as an assistant coach last fall in Paris. He was passed over for a wild-card selection in 2014 by captain Paul McGinley and again in 2016 by Darren Clarke. The latter was a closer call, so close that Clarke told McIlroy that he was going to use his final pick on Donald and then changed his mind at the 11th hour when Thomas Pieters won in Denmark with an impressive performance that weekend.
Being part of another team victory was a treasure in Paris. “It was good just to be around and watch good golf,” he said. “I let it soak in and played the next two weeks in Europe. I played OK, but just to be around that atmosphere and be around the guys again, it was good. It was a good remembrance of what I used to be able to do.”
His goal this week is modest: Play four rounds and have his back feel well at tournament’s end. His opening 67 serves as a bonus.
“Backs are tricky. and they take a little bit of time,” Donald said. “I’m still limited. I’m not going out there and beating balls for six hours a day like I used to and playing every day. I have to be more efficient with my practice and be diligent about the stuff I’m doing for my back.”
The Valspar is only Donald’s sixth tournament since last year’s Valspar. Hence his latest precipitous fall in the world rankings.
He hopes to play the Valero Texas Open in two weeks and return to the RBC Heritage Classic at Harbour Town in four weeks. He talked last year about how he has seen other players suffer down periods – Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood – and bounce back. Donald aims to do the same, if and when his back lets him.
This week could be baby steps forward for him. Keep an eye on his world-rankings graph. It will show whether his stock is on the rise. Buy low or sell high, but just don’t sell Donald short.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle