- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Five hundred thirty words lay out the formula to determine the world’s top golfer. Pull out a slide rule and bottle of Tylenol, because you need to look at events from 12 tours and determine the ranking points awarded for each event — more for majors and other select events, of course — relative to the strength of the field based on the number of players in the top 200 … and hundreds more words.

But, really, there are only three things you need to know about the man the numbers insist plays golf better than anyone on the planet.

Fifteen players have ranked been No. 1 in the 24-year existence of the Official World Golf Rankings.

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One of those, Tiger Woods, held the spot for 623 weeks.

And the latest, No. 1 for the past two weeks entering Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, is a slender Englishman named Luke Donald.

Blond hair spills out of his visor. He stands 5-foot-9 and majored in art theory at Northwestern University. The ball doesn’t go into orbit when he hits it. He’s thoughtful answering questions. Reaching No. 1 wasn’t a goal, never something he even thought much about. Every day, he writes goals and accomplishments in his performance diary. He can be impatient. He may have the world’s top short game. To improve his mental preparation, he employs a man who touts himself as the world’s best kicking coach. Jack Nicklaus called Donald the hardest worker in golf.

A formula can’t explain Donald’s rise. The answer, instead, starts when last season ended. Eleven weeks changed his career’s equation. Donald did something unusual: He stopped playing golf.

For seven weeks, he didn’t pick up a club. The last four weeks he worked with Pat Goss, his coach since 1997 at Northwestern. Donald won the NCAA men’s title there in 1999. They tried to reduce the level of expectation and tinkered with Donald’s swing. Most importantly, Donald retreated from the crucible of weekly competition. Time jetted by.

“It was incredibly important and valuable,” Goss said. “It took a lot of courage and belief to do that.”

Added Ben Shear, who oversees Donald’s strength and conditioning: “In the past, he’s had a lot of success, but probably didn’t feel like he achieved everything he wanted to. We sat down with his coach and his mental guy and said, ‘Let’s put a plan together. Let’s leave no stone unturned.’ “

Goss stopped attending Donald’s majors and won’t be at the U.S. Open. Too much of a circus. The coach didn’t want to add to the chaos and be a distraction. But he still coaches Northwestern. So, when Donald edged Lee Westwood in a playoff at the BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club, Goss got updates in an airport. The May 11 match thrust Donald to No. 1.

The time off transformed him. Sure, he was consistent, finishing in the top 25 of 103 of 207 events. The money flowed in, too, over $20 million on the PGA Tour and 10 million Euros (about $14 million) from the European Tour. But this season, he has 10 straight top-10 finishes.

Those numbers come without booming drives down fairways. At the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, two weeks ago, Phil Mickelson stepped up to a microphone for a quick post-round interview. The microphone only reached the 6-foot-3 Mickelson’s chest.

Luke Donald is here,” Mickelson said, then chuckled. “He’s the No. 1 player in the world. I’ve got to bust his chops.”

In an era where long balls and long courses rule golf, Donald relies on accuracy and precision. When Mickelson tees off, the ball seems to sizzle in the air. Donald’s is softer and sounds, well, normal. He ranks 148th on the PGA Tour in driving distance — 279.9 yards per try — but is 13th in driving accuracy.

Close to a machine, Fred Couples called Donald.

Shear’s workouts focus on technique and efficiency, not strength or power. Preparing for the four majors is the overarching goal. Once Shear texted Donald to make certain he got in his workout.

“You don’t need to check on me,” Shear remembers Donald texting back. “You tell me to do it, and it’s going to be done.”

Nicklaus remembered Donald’s obsessive use of the practice greens at the The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., where he is a member.

“He spends his time chipping and putting, chipping and putting,” Nicklaus said. “And, I mean, he wears out the practice greens. … Luke isn’t the longest hitter on Tour, so he has to make up for it elsewhere.”

That includes bringing aboard Dave Alred, better known for his work as a kicking coach with English rugby star Jonny Wilkinson. From 1995 to 2006, Alred was an assistant coach on England’s national rugby team. Now, in addition to kicking instruction, he offers work with “mental preparation, skills acquisition and performance under pressure.”

The performance diary was Alred’s idea when they partnered in 2010. He also designs drills to make Donald practice under pressure, rather robotically smacking ball after ball at the ranges. Exercises such as seeing how many tries he needs to chip five balls into a six-foot wide circle are common. Or hit five shots with a specific swing, then suddenly be ordered to play a ball as if he’s on the course. All the work has improved his accuracy, particularly off the tee.

“I got to a point where I was trying to hit the ball too hard,” Donald said. “For as far as I hit a ball, I needed to hit more fairways than I did.”

In Alred’s key drill, Donald plays nine holes with three attempts per shot. Each shot is graded. Repeatedly negative ones get extra work.

“The most important thing is that it changes your mindset as to what you could be,” Alred told The (London) Telegraph.

The one thing Donald hasn’t done is capture a major. Congressional’s Blue Course checks in at 7,568 yards, the second-longest setup in U.S. Open history. But Nicklaus believes the course works in Donald’s favor because precision shot-making, not brute power, will be the primary factor.

To Donald, reaching No. 1 is an accomplishment for yourself. Winning a major, he said, establishes you as one of golf’s greats in the eyes of your peers.

That formula doesn’t require a statistics degree to understand.