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BILL DWYRE

Luke Donald is No. 1 with a popgun, not a bullet

The short, straight hitter might not provide the thrills of Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, but he tops the world ranking. A major title would help.

February 17, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Luke Donald watches his tee shot at No. 2 on Friday during the second round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.
Luke Donald watches his tee shot at No. 2 on Friday during the second round… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world. He is the top dog.

Yet, were you to walk up to the average guy on the street and say that, the response most likely would be, "Of what?"

In a world where sports fans wave big foam fingers in celebration of the best and banter incessantly in print, on the Internet and over the airwaves about who is wearing the crown and whether he or she is worthy, Donald walks the fairways of the toughest golf courses in the world in something less than electric surroundings.

He did exactly that Friday at Riviera's Northern Trust Open, and it's not as if Los Angeles is some provincial burg uninformed and unaccustomed to world sports.

He teed off at high noon and was followed, at least over the first few holes of his round, by a media horde of one. No scrambles inside the ropes to get the best view of that birdie putt, no camera crews out-maneuvering each other for the best angle.

Luke Donald is the quiet king. He wears a crown that few seem to recognize. If being No. 1 is a ticker-tape parade, golf has the wrong guy.

He got to No. 1 in the World Golf Rankings last May and has stayed there since. His 2011 season was beyond belief. He won $6.7 million on the U.S. tour, 5.3 million pounds on the European tour and is the first card-carrying member of both to do that. (Tiger Woods would have had he ever officially joined the European tour group).

Donald lists his home as High Wycombe, England. That's where the announcer on the first tee places him. But he has lived mostly in the United States ever since he attended Northwestern, met there and married Diana Antonopoulos and established residences along the way in Northfield, Ill., and Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

He is 34 years old, 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds. He has risen to the top of a game in which he usually hits second shots first on each non-par-three hole. That's because his playing partners are four inches taller, 40 pounds heavier and 30 yards longer off the tee.

"I'm certainly not the best ball-striker," he says. "I'm not the best off the tee."

What he is the best at is a consistency that grinds out unspectacular success, time after time, tournament after tournament. Tiger hits it 320 and gets up and down from behind a tree. Fans go wild. Phil Mickelson cranks one around a tree to two feet, or chips in out of deep rough off the side of a hill for birdie. Fans go wild.

Donald keeps hitting it down the middle and making par or birdie. Fans yawn and go find Tiger or Phil.

Riviera's second hole provided evidence of a typical Luke Donald moment Friday. He drove it short and right on the par-four, 471-yard test, then left his approach just off the green in the unyielding kikuyu grass that Riviera uses as one of its means to torture the pros. Playing partner Adam Scott was 30 yards longer off the tee, and just a few feet away from Donald in the kikuyu. The third member of the group, Nick Watney, also hit a bomb that stopped 40 yards in front of Donald. He hit his approach 60 feet long to the back of the green.

Watney three-putted, Scott succumbed to the evil kikuyu and left his chip so short that he also needed two putts for a bogey. Donald chipped out cleanly to two feet and saved par.

That's Donald's version of spectacular, and it clearly has served him well.

His front nine had one birdie and one bogey and read 4-4-4-3-4-4-4-4-4—35. Two ways to look at that. Consistent, yes. Boring, maybe. He got wild and crazy on the back nine with two bogeys and one birdie and went 5-5-4-4-3-5-2-5-4—37.

His 142 total got him to the weekend rounds, which was much better than last year, when he shot a 79 on Friday and missed the cut.

"Yup, much better," Donald said afterward. "Only six shots back."

Of course, last year, he went immediately to Tucson and won the prestigious Accenture match-play tournament. That included a 6-and-5 victory in the semifinals over Matt Kuchar.

"That was probably what got me started," Donald says now.

When he was finished in 2011, he had won player-of-the-year awards on both tours and become the 15th player to make the No. 1 ranking since the system was put in place.

He has said that, at one time, the thought of being No. 1, were he to get there, scared him a bit.

"I just think, seeing all the hoopla, and everything that went with Tiger," he said, "and just the distractions and some of the issues of not having much privacy, that seemed tough for me at that point. Obviously, Tiger is Tiger and I think my situation is a bit different."

Different also, and contributing to his mild receptions in U.S. galleries, is the fact that he has yet to win a major, although he has finished as high as third in the Masters and the PGA.

Now, he says he is getting more comfortable with being king of the hill. In fact, he might even be a bit perturbed that he currently is ruling in such silence, at least in the United States.

Asked for his reaction about walking the fairways Friday in relative solitude, Donald smiled, shrugged and said, "I guess they were all watching Phil."

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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