Tour Confidential: Is Luke Donald Ready to Return to Contention?

April 18, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Former world No. 1 Luke Donald emerged from the abyss at the RBC Heritage to take the 54-hole lead before carding an underwhelming final-round 71 to finish two strokes behind South African Branden Grace. Should Donald feel encouraged, because he was in the mix, or discouraged, because he failed to close the deal?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Oh, definitely encouraged. For a guy like Donald, trying to refind his game and confidence (and purpose in life?) it’s definitely baby steps, and this was an encouraging one in the right direction. 

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: For sure, encouraged. Golf at that level is all about knocking on the door. You knock and you knock and a certain percentage of the time it opens. Tiger made you think that’s not how golf works but he was an outlier in every way. If Luke is as smart as I think he is, he’ll be certain to play Colonial–good course for him.

SCORES: See the Final Leaderboard from the RBC Heritage

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): Given how far he had fallen, he should feel great about playing his way into contention, but Sunday was a tough one, especially that hook on No. 8. Even when he reached No. 1, Donald’s MO wasn’t that of cold-blooded closer. It was good to see him back in the mix, but I wonder if his week in Harbour Town ultimately did him more harm than good. 

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Not sure how it can do any harm, Jeff. Quite the opposite. Considering Donald not too long ago said he has been contemplating retirement, this was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. The fact that the guy was No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking as recently as four years ago (and for a total of 56 weeks!) speaks to what a cruel humbling game this is.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@JoePassov): I’m a longtime Luke Donald fan, and I was encouraged by what transpired this week for him. He held it together for the entire event, and that’s a good sign. No, he didn’t play well on Sunday. Too many loose drives–horrible hook at 8, which nobody else did all day–and he didn’t stuff his irons or his putts the way he did in previous days. By the same token, he didn’t choke, he didn’t blow a big lead. He fought, he scrambled and he hung in for a T2. He got beat by a top-20 player who played a superb round and who holed a ton of huge mid-range putts. I hope it’s a stepping stone for Luke, though I still don’t see him being terribly competitive on the longer bombers tracks.

2. The Bryson DeChambeau Show continued at the RBC, where he fired a Sunday 68 at Harbour Town Golf Links to tie for fourth in his professional debut. If DeChambeau continues to play well, what kind of impact do you think he and his lovable eccentricities could have on the game?

Shipnuck: Oh, he’s great for the game. He’s already a somewhat polarizing figure–people are fascinated by him, or they’re already put off–but almost nobody has no opinion. That’s a great thing.

Godich: It’s one thing to be eccentric. It’s an entirely different thing to back it up with your sticks, whatever length they may be. I’m intrigued. A 21st-place finish (at the Masters) and a T-4 on two entirely different tracks tells me that Mr. DeChambeau has the game to compete at the highest level.

Bamberger: I wouldn’t even call him eccentric, Mark. I just think he’s thinking for himself. That’s what made this country great!

Passov: I was blown away by his swagger, and by his results, in 2015. When you win the NCAA and the U.S. Am in the same year, as DeChambeau did, you join exalted company: Nicklaus, Mickelson, Woods and Ryan Moore. I’m seeing more of the same this year, with many fascinating backstories, from his matching length clubs to his attire. Golf needs these personalities, especially those with the talent to back it up. His impact could be huge.

Ritter: He’s a unique character, and unique characters who win championships tend to become extremely famous in our sports culture. If BDC starts winning (does BDC work as a nickname? I’m not sure), I wonder if clubmakers might make a move to start rolling about single-length iron sets. That would certainly qualify as a revolution. 


3. Tour rookie Dawie van der Walt called out struggling veteran Mike Weir for taking up a sponsor’s invite at the RBC Heritage, then withdrawing after a first-round 78. Weir, 45, has either withdrawn or missed the cut in each of his last 24 starts. Is van der Walt correct in suggesting that Weir should “hang it up,” or out of line for tweaking the 2003 Masters champion?

Shipnuck: Kinda both. You have to admire Weir for still nobly trying to play his way out of this horrendous slump. It takes courage to keep showing up when the whole world is watching you fail over and over. He’s earned the right to keep trying, although at some point doesn’t the self-flagellation become too painful? But van de Walt’s anger is misplaced: it really should be directed toward the tournament directors, as they’re the ones who are offering the invites.

Rittter: Exactly. This is a question for tournament directors, not Weir. It’s hard to criticize a former Masters champ for merely accepting invitations to tee it up. But I’m not sure how much longer Weir’s exemption gravy train will last. I admire him for continuing to fight, but his recent results are just depressing. 

Passov: Continuing a tradition I began a month or so ago, I have to agree completely with Alan’s assessment here. If I’m a tournament sponsor, I’m going to give Mike Weir some love: major winner, multiple wins on tour, brings the Canadian crowds. I’m going to take him every time over Dawie van der Walt. Still, I just don’t know how one balances the pain and humiliation of trying to compete, and failing miserably, with the notion that the only way to pull yourself out of the abyss is to keep trying and perhaps that next week is where you find it again. I think of that year when a hurting Scott Verplank finished last in driving distance and last in driving accuracy, on his way to a dismal finish on the money list. Yet, eventually, he rediscovered his game, and then some.

Godich: Plenty of blame to go around. The sponsor knew what it was getting into by inviting a guy who hadn’t played on a weekend in 20+ events. Who cares what van der Walt thinks? And if a sponsor is going to be kind enough to grant you one of its prized exemptions, Weir owes it to said sponsor to play 36 holes, even if he’s a little nicked up or on his way to shooting 100.

Bamberger: Oh, please. Move on, Mike Weir. Yes, you’re entitled. But play the 36 or don’t go to the first tee at all. 

4. Vijay Singh said he will pass on representing Fiji in the Olympic Games because of scheduling issues and concerns of the Zika virus. Are Singh’s worries valid, or should he and other top Tour pros feel compelled to play for their flags?

Shipnuck: What, can deer antler spray allow a dude to get knocked up? From all that I’ve read, the Zika isn’t a concern for healthy (non-pregnant) adults. As for scheduling concerns, that’s a joke. Is he afraid of missing some B-list Senior event? At his age he should be thrilled to have one last shot at the Olympics. I’m guessing this is more about Singh’s tortured relationship with his homeland than anything else. I think Olympic golf is gonna be a home run and personally can’t wait to get down there. Once the various other golfers are in Rio surrounded by all the Olympic pageantry they’ll get the fever, too … and I’m not talking about Zika. 

Ritter: Golfers who embrace the Games are going to love them, and if Vijay’s not feeling it, best to just take a pass. It’s a shame that Fiji has never won an Olympic medal. I guess it’ll once again be forced to pin its hopes on its badminton team. Or maybe bobsled.

Passov: I can understand women professional golfers making a tough, though educated decision about the risks involved. Vijay? Zika? C’mon, man.

Godich: Something tells me the show will go on without Vijay.

Bambger: Beautifully said, Mark. Although it would have been cool to see Vijay win gold there and stick it to the man he despises so (the PGA Tour brass that is so endeared to this golfing extravaganza). 

5.) The eight PGA Tour events since the Honda Classic in late February (excluding alternate-field tournaments) have produced just one American winner: Jim Herman, at the Shell Houston Open. What gives?

Shipnuck: Wait, what about Tony Finau? But the larger point holds. I’m sure Davis Love’s ulcer has been growing by the week.

Passov: Hey, Jimmy Walker captured the par-3 tournament at Augusta, with a record score of 8-under-par 19. That counts for something, right? No real worries here. Jordan Spieth had the Masters locked up with nine to play and Bubba has played extremely well this year. Equally jarring is that for the entire year, the LPGA has just one American winner, Lexi Thompson. Let’s see how the Valero Texas Open shapes up this week. I’m ready to unfurl my Stars and Stripes.

Ritter: These things ebb and flow, and Joe’s right: Spieth should’ve won the Masters, which would make this question moot. But there is a wave of international players on the rise, led by our newly minted Masters champ. Don’t look now, but the European Ryder Cup roster looks a whole lot more frightening than it did two months ago. Funny how that always seems to happen in even-numbered years.

Godich: The Ryder Cup is more than five months away. That said, maybe the dinner at Jack and Barbara’s place wasn’t such a good idea.

Bamberger: But it’s never too early to panic, Mark!