Donald’s defeat gives ammunition to critics

After tripping up at the final hurdle at the World Match Play
Championship, Luke Donald may have given more ammunition to critics
who claim he still lacks that ruthless edge when it matters
most.

His breakthrough victory at the Accenture Match Play in Arizona
in February suggested a cure had been found to ”Luke Donald
Disease” – a condition cruelly invented by an American journalist
in 2009 to describe the Englishman’s inability to close out a big
tournament.

Critics were briefly silenced, but they may return with renewed
voice after his latest stumble, a 2 and 1 defeat in the final to
Ian Poulter just when the No. 1 spot in the world rankings was
there to be taken in southern Spain.

Donald produced some majestic performances throughout the week
at the Finca Cortesin course, breezing through the group stage and
reaching the final with an uncompromising 5-and-3 thrashing of
third-ranked Martin Kaymer early on Sunday.

”He played like a machine,” said a bewildered Kaymer. ”It was
like a PlayStation, it was unbelievable. It felt impossible for
me.”

Donald was heavy favorite to go on and make a defiant statement
in the final a few hours later, defeating Ian Poulter to take over
as No. 1 for the first time.

But he left his short game and putting in the locker room,
losing 2 and 1 in a curiously error-strewn display that didn’t
corrolate with what he had produced before in Andalusia. With the
No. 1 ranking tantalizingly close, had Donald been struck by an
attack of the jitters?

”I didn’t execute my shots when I needed to and that’s
disappointing,” said Donald, who five hours earlier didn’t put a
foot wrong against Kaymer. ”I left too many shots out there.”

It was Tiger Woods, addressing the media on the eve of the U.S.
Open in Pinehurst in 2005, who famously talked of Donald as a
player who ”plods along.”

That description can surely now be consigned to history. True,
Donald can be methodical and slow-paced in his approach but 14
straight match-play victories, inclusive of singles and doubles
matches in the Ryder Cup, before his defeat to Poulter is no record
for a mere plodder. Neither is 13 top-10 finishes in 14 events
before traveling to Spain for the World Match Play.

However hard it will be, Donald will endeavor to put this
setback to the back of his mind and make a renewed bid for Lee
Westwood’s No. 1 spot next week at the PGA Championship at
Wentworth, England.

”I’m not too concerned with the rankings,” Donald said. ”That
kind of takes care of itself but I’ll keep knocking on the door and
we’ll give it another try next week.

”Not getting the victory was the disappointing thing. I think
the world ranking will come if I keep playing the way I am
playing.”

With match play appearing to be his strongest suit, he will hope
he hasn’t missed his best opportunity.

Regardless of all his top-10 finishes in 2011, he has still won
just one strokeplay title in five years – the 2010 Madrid
Masters.

His consistency in all departments of the game and his ability
to salvage something from seemingly perilous situations makes him
ideally suited to match play, but he came up against someone in his
own image in Poulter.

”He’s gritty, he gets the job done,” Donald said of his Ryder
Cup teammate. ”He’s not an easy opponent to play and he did what
he needed to do.”

Looking back on how well he played in Spain, Donald will be
wondering how he didn’t come away with the No. 1 ranking and
unprecedented back-to-back titles in the world’s two high-profile
match-play tournaments.

It remains to be seen if the defeat to Poulter sows any seeds of
doubt in Donald’s psyche just at the time he looked ready to shut
his critics up once and for all.