Luke Donald Falls Short at RBC Heritage: Will Former No. 1 Ever Be Elite Again?

Mike DudurichContributor IApril 20, 2014

Sometimes it's a tough world on the PGA Tour for Luke Donald.
Sometimes it's a tough world on the PGA Tour for Luke Donald.Stephen B. Morton

There once was a man named Luke Donald who was the darling of the golf world.

In 2011, he put together one of the greatest seasons in the history of the game and was rewarded with a No. 1 post in the Official World Golf Ranking. Donald played in 19 events, won twice, finished second twice and third twice.

The most remarkable of the numbers he posted, however, were these: In those 19 events, Donald finished in the top 10 a total of 14 times.

Eight of his first starts were top-10s, including the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play title. And he finished the year with six top-10s in his last eight starts, including a win in the Children's Miracle Network Hospital Classic.

He was No. 1 in strokes gained putting, No. 1 in scoring average, led the PGA Tour in money earned and was seventh in all-around ranking. And, oh yeah, he became the first player to win the money titles on both the PGA and European Tours in the same season.

That was thenthis is now.

The Englishman won the 2012 Transitions Championship but hasn't won since.

"I was the former world No. 1 and was there for a long time and obviously slipped down," Donald said in a story by the Associated Press on on Saturday. "But I haven't felt my game had gotten that much worse."

He was 29th in the world prior to the RBC Heritage.

In eight events in 2014, Donald has three top-10s, but until this week's stop on Hilton Head Island, he hadn't contended. But Donald played well at Harbour Town and had a chance to win until a hole-out by Matt Kuchar on the 72nd hole clinched another second-place finish for Donald.

Will he ever become an elite player again like he was in 2011-12?

I don't think so.

Once again, Luke Donald was a runner-up at Harbour Town.
Once again, Luke Donald was a runner-up at Harbour Town.Stephen B. Morton

While he still remains one of the best putters in the game, he doesn't hit it long enough (averaging 281.4 yards off the tee, 156th on the PGA Tour). Complicating his lack of length off the tee, he has traditionally not been all that accurate from the tee box. This year, he's hit 190 of 304 fairways, 76th on tour.

But even a more telling item about what might keep Donald from returning to elite status is this: For the most part, he's rarely a factor in major championships. And there are no elite players in the game without major titles.

Donald tied for eighth in last year's U.S. Open and tied for fifth in the British Open Championship. In 42 major starts, his best finishes are a pair of thirds. He's missed cuts in 27 of those 42.

A couple of putts just didn't fall for Luke Donald on Sunday
A couple of putts just didn't fall for Luke Donald on SundayStephen B. Morton

If a major would be played at Harbour Town Golf Links, however, Donald might have a chance. He's finished second there three of the last six years and is 47 under par in that time.

To me, Donald is a very good player, a very nice man and a guy who has already made a nice living playing golf and will continue to do that. He's a credit to Northwestern University, where he graduated with an art theory and practice degree.

But he's not shown me any indication that he's capable of handling pressures associated with the heat of major championships. He's not able to make the key shots when he has to in order to reach that elite level again.

He's in that trio of talented EuropeansLee Westwood and Sergio Garcia the otherswho have had very good careers but have come up just a little short every time in a major.

Being in that little group doesn't make Donald a bad guy.

It just makes him a guy who had a run at the top of the golf world during a spectacular season and couldn't do what it takes to stay there and has settled into a role of being a very good professional golfer.

One who knows he's not capable of playing at that elite level any more.