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Eye On the Tiger
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
March 20, 2006
Winning the Honda Classic was big, but Luke Donald has a more ambitious goal
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March 20, 2006

Eye On The Tiger

Winning the Honda Classic was big, but Luke Donald has a more ambitious goal

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This first part you probably saw on TV: England's Luke Donald in the middle of the 18th fairway, nearly suppertime for the South Florida early-birders on a luscious Sunday. A well-curled visor on his bleached head. Swathed in Polo. His teaching pro brother on the bag. A Mizuno five-iron in his hands. The hole 199 yards away. He had two potential outcomes, really: 1) Hit it somewhere on the green, take two putts for par, win the first 72-hole PGA Tour event of your life by a shot. 2) Hit a crazy double-cross, yank-hook off the sunroof of the bright-red, brand-new Honda parked greenside, pull a Van de Velde, wind up in a playoff or worse.

Slim-man Luke--Ryder Cupper past and future, Northwestern grad, artist, highbrow golfer--drew a circle around outcome 1. And then some. He hit a smokin' iron shot, held the finish while the reviews started coming in, drained the ensuing four-footer for birdie, raised the $990,000 cardboard winner's check, saw his World Ranking go up to No. 10, came into the pressroom and talked about his ultimate goal: to become the No. 1 player in the world. It can happen, he said, "if you get into the mentality that you don't have to do anything more, you simply have to do what you know how to do." Much wisdom there.

The Kingdom's funny when it comes to golfing smarts. In modern times Britain has produced two major-winning simpletons (see ball, hit ball) in Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, and two major-winning eggheads, Nick Faldo and Tony Jacklin. The bet here is that Donald will win a U.S. Open and a Players Championship before Henry Aaron's career home run record is broken, and he'll do it the way Tony and Nick did it and the way Tiger does it: with superior thinking, which always goes well with a classic swing.

This part you didn't see on TV: Friday, lunchtime, the wind blowing hard off the ocean across I-95, around the McMansions and over the Sunrise course at the Country Club at Mirasol, five miles from Palm Beach. Donald on the 11th hole of his second round, maybe 15 feet for par, one over for the tournament. You can three-putt from three feet in a wind like that, let alone from 15. Especially on a development course like Mirasol, where the greens are almost Augusta-like, fast and swoopy, dry as your morning throat. Had Donald made a bogey or worse there, he would have been fighting to make the cut the rest of the way in. He made the putt. That's what Tiger does, it seems, darn near every time--holes those medium-length par putts. Woods has been saying for a decade now that putts for par are huge for the big mo, as Bush the elder called it. After that, Donald finished the second round by going birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie, par. Yikes, or if you prefer, 30 for his second nine, six under par.

They say you can't win a tournament on a Friday, but who are they anyhow? Donald played a difficult, windblown, crunchy course with scores of 72, 67, 68 and 69. If you play a hard course that well, you can control your head like a Hale Irwin or a Lee Janzen, you can keep your ball in play, and you should contend in the hardest, meanest, nastiest tournament of them all: the U.S. Open. Especially at Winged Foot (come June) or Oakmont (come June '07). No Brit has won a U.S. Open since Jacklin in 1970, and the last to win the Players was Lyle in 1987. Donald, not long but extremely accurate, could win at Sawgrass later this month. Fred Funk did a year ago, slapping it a mere 250ish at age 48.

Donald was playing a home game last week. He speaks with a suburban London accent, has an American girlfriend with a Greek surname whom he met at Northwestern, and owns a year-round home in Chicago. He also has a winter home near the Bear's Club, where he's a member. It's a Nicklaus hangout with a fabulous practice field about five miles from Mirasol. Donald does spots for the Royal Bank of Scotland with Jack and appears in Polo ads with honorary Briton Tom Watson. As the kids say, he's got the whole thing going on.

In 2007, when Donald defends his Honda Classic title, it'll be a Nicklaus operation. The tournament will move again--to its seventh course since it originated in 1972 as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic--going across PGA Boulevard from Mirasol to PGA National, a Fazio course with Nicklaus's renovation fingerprints all over it. (Bring your high ball.) The Tour has cut ties with the Classic Foundation, the charitable group that founded the event and ran it through this year. Starting next year it'll still be called the Honda Classic, but the group behind it will be the Nicklaus Family Foundation. (And in other keeping-up-with-the-Joneses news, beginning next year the old Bay Hill event will be renamed the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Coincidence? We think not.) Maybe Jack can get Tiger to play the event. Maybe. Woods hasn't played Honda since 1993, when he and dad Earl were welcomed personally by the event's longtime director, Cliff Danley. Danley began working the tournament in '73, as Gleason's away-we-go cart driver, but with the switch, Danley, 57, is out of a job.

"If there's a choice for the PGA Tour, they're always going to follow the money," Danley said on Sunday as Donald played in. Danley, a towering man who never passed a whoopee cushion he didn't squeeze, is a beloved figure to many players of a certain age. Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Mike (no relation) Donald and Mark O'Meara played last week at least in part because they wanted to pay tribute to him. "If you said to Cliff, 'How about parking spaces near the clubhouse for past champions?' it happened," said O'Meara, the 1995 Honda Classic champion. At the closing ceremony on the 18th green on Sunday evening--car keys, giant check, tournament hardware, smiling winner, etc.--there was more emotion for Danley than for anyone else.

You wouldn't call Luke Donald a charismatic golfer, but he gets high marks for style. Way more important than that, he's smart, and on Sunday he was as tough as a five-quid steak. He made a five-footer to save par on 15 and saved par again on 16 with a pitch shot and a 17-footer. All the while, two players not afraid to win, Tiger-beater Billy Mayfair and Match Play champion Geoff Ogilvy, were hanging around, hoping for a gift that Donald never gave them.

Just the idea of Donald ever having a higher World Ranking than Woods makes you wonder what's in the Gatorade over at the Bear's Club. (Woods is, golfwise, stronger, tougher, smarter--and he has more shots.) But you have to give Donald credit: How many American players are even willing to think such a thought, let alone voice it?

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