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Donald needs a Major

He can learn from Zach Johnoson

Posted Mar 20, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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In a way, it seemed decidedly odd that in his moment of victory, Luke Donald should have seen the Transitions Championship title on Sunday as no more than another important step in his tournament career. He refused to see it as hugely significant in itself, even though it meant regaining the number-one position in the world rankings after a lapse of only two weeks.

The truth is that like most observers, Donald knows his status as a top golfer won’t be secure until he has won a major championship.  In the wake of the Transitions, one leading US scribe suggested this was both unfair and inaccurate, given the number of quite ordinary practitioners who have a major title to their name.  But this is to miss the point.  It it not a question of which has more merit, a major title or world number-one.  

Nobody would ever dream of singling out Shaun Micheel or Rich Beem as truly great players, simply because they had won the PGA Championship. And they wouldn’t deserve to be rated alongside recent world number-ones such as Donald or Lee Westwood.  But a world number-one cannot be considered a complete player until he has coped successfully with the special heat of a major championship.

Which is why Donald has now set his sights on the US Masters which will be his next tournament assignment, starting on April 5th.  And in the process, one can imagine him studying the remarkable 2007 victory by Zach Johnson at Augusta National, not least because they are two of a kind.

Johnson’s victory was unexpected, because Augusta is generally acknowledged as a big-hitters course, where the par-fives must be made to deliver a rich dividend.  And with average drives of 281 yards on the PGA Tour, allied to a splendid short game, Johnson is very much in the Donald mould. In fact the Englishman is slightly shorter than him off the tee with average drives of 273 yards.

Now let us consider Johnson’s approach to the 2007 Masters.  As it happened, he got the necessary return from the par-fives which he played in 11 under par over the four days.  In fact he was the only competitor to reach double-digits in this context, his closest challenger being Tiger Woods who covered them in nine-under. But the player, ranked 162nd in driving distance out of the 186 competitors, achieved his impressive figures not through raw power, but through a well-tried strategy.

In effect, Johnson took a lesson out of Billy Casper's book of doing it with his wedge game. It will be recalled that Casper, en route to a US Open triumph at Winged Foot in 1959, took the extraordinary approach of laying up each day on the 217-yard, par-three third hole because it was out of his reach with normal, short-hole clubs.  And he made par on it on all four days.

Similarly, Johnson declined to go for any of the Augusta par-fives in two and managed to get up and down for birdies from the fairway in 11 out of 16 attempts.  By doing it this way he stayed within his game-plan while eliminating any risk of making six or worse on these treacherous holes.  As he put it afterwards: “I set limitations, if you will, on what clubs I was prepared to hit to the greens.  At 13, for instance, I had the opportunity of getting there fairly easily but I didn’t have the proper club.  I wanted a four-iron or less and couldn’t draw my drive around the corner enough to make this possible. So I laid up.”

So it was that while executing his own form of "overpowering" Augusta, Johnson did it with average drives of 265.0.  In fact if one were to look at the driving distance of all 96 players in the field, only Gary Player and Ben Crenshaw hit it shorter than him.

This will be Donald’s eighth Masters challenge and so far, he has been tied third on his debut in 2005 and was tied fourth behind Charl Schwartzel last year.  Which proves, as Johnson illustrated so effectively, that there are other ways of skinning this particular cat than through power off the tee.  As for his need to win a major: Donald clearly considers it necessary to his golfing status, and I believe he’s right.

- Dermot Gilleece

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