The conventional golf wisdom is that to cope with the length of most tour courses nowadays, golfers have to hit the ball as far as possible. For many years, Tiger Woods length from the tee provided the cornerstone of his success. Many other top golfers now regularly spank the ball 300 yards or more down the fairway as technology has helped the most gifted propel the ball previously unimaginable distances.
What were once tricky par five holes have now become a drive and a mid iron for some players. Some par fours can now be driven from the tee, courses are being feverishly modified to ensure that courses remain competitive for players. This generally entails moving the tee as far back as possible, ideally into the next county.
So, given the games current obsession with length, why is it that the current world number one, and the winner of both the US and European Tour’s money list for 2011 (a unique honour in the world of golf) is one player who doesn’t tend to smash the ball a country mile?
The man in question is of course the incredible Luke Donald and his successes in 2011 have got the world of golf talking once again about what you really need to be the best in the world.
Donald ranked tied-147th on tour for average driving distance (284.1 yards). And he did rank 57th for driving accuracy. But these statistics don’t really display the characteristics of the golfer who has been the best in America, Europe and across the world in 2011.
Donald’s iron play played a bigger role in his success this year than his driving. He ranked 41st in greens hit, but was 9th in terms of landing his approaches closest to the hole. Furthermore, with a wedge in his hand Donald was nothing short of outstanding, ranking second on tour for approach shots under 125 yards, making birdie or better 1 in every 3 shots.
It was however on the greens that Donald really excelled, he’s been the best putter on the PGA Tour in the last three years and this year, the adage “drive for show, putt for dough” really came home to roost. Inside three feet, Donald was perfect in the year, hitting 529 out of 529 putts from inside this distance.
The other thing that is jarringly apparent from the statistics is Donald’s trademark consistency. In 16 final rounds played on the US PGA tour in 2011, Donald was under par a staggering 15 times and even par for the other round. He is the only officially ranked tour player without an over par final round in 2011.
The wealth of statistics show that Donald’s dominance is well deserved, yet there is a sense of intrigue about his success. How can a golfer, who is not archetypical of what we assume to be the blueprint for a ‘successful golfer’ in the world today, be so good on such a consistent basis?
Luke Donald isn’t tall or powerfully built; he can’t generate the same clubhead speed as Ernie Els or Alvaro Quiros; he doesn’t have forearms like Popeye and isn’t the most vociferous golfer on the course, but there are clues as to what make him the world’s best at present.
Chief amongst them is his swing. Donald’s swing is truly a thing of beauty; there is a certain velvet grace to it that appears as if it is the most natural movement for Donald to perform. His swing is a pure, simple yet elegant golf stroke that Donald has ingrained into his psyche and it is this provides the catalyst for all aspects of his game.
In addition to a majestic swing, Donald also possesses a fierce will to win. The Englishman may come across as somewhat laconic and affable in front of the TV camera’s but let there be no doubt that Donald is a fierce competitor. This was illustrated when taking on the then world number one, Lee Westwood, at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth this year when he held his nerve to not only take the title in a nail biting playoff, but install himself as the new world number one.
He has not relinquished that position since.
Donald has fully deserved being named PGA and PGA Tour player of the year in this past week and next year few would bet against him targeting a major title in his quest for golfing greatness. He may not be the longest or most spectacular player, but golf is so much more than being able to hit the ball vast distances from the tee.
As Donald has comprehensively proven throughout this record-breaking season.
(Stats kindly reproduced from PGA Tour)
Images by Keith Allison