Luke Donald’s loss gives ammunition to critics

After stumbling over 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

vigor after his latest setback, a 2-and-1 loss to Ian Poulter in

the World Match Play final just when the No. 1 spot in the world

ranking was there to be taken.

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 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 the heavy favorite to 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, including 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 behind him and make a renewed bid for Lee Westwood’s No. 1

spot next week at the BMW 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 won only

one stroke-play 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 molded

in his own image: 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 loss 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.