I remember a few years ago covering the NCAA Men’s Golf Championships at Hazeltine National in Chaska. Northwestern from the Big Ten had the No. 1-ranked player — his name was Luke Donald. Lo and behold, that same guy, Luke Donald, last year made golf history by winning the European money title, which is called the Order of Merit.
He also won the U.S. money title on the PGA Tour, the only player in history to achieve that feat. One thing is certain: Whether it’s men’s or women’s professional golf, America is no longer number one.
World golf has never been stronger; female Asian players are dominating the LPGA tour, and European players are dominating men’s professional golf. This year, American players won the first nine tournaments on the PGA tour. Suddenly the Europeans have won three straight with the Masters around the corner.
Donald is 34 years old and has won seven times worldwide in the last two years. His game is strong, not the longest but great with the putter.
He won his first tournament of the year Sunday, taking the Transitions Championship by birdying the first playoff hole to beat Jim Furyk, Robert Garrigus and Sang Moon-Bae. That’s just part of the story.
Ernie Els virtually handed the tournament away trying to qualify for the Masters. He had a one-shot lead on the 16th green and missed a five-foot birdie putt, then made bogies on the last two holes to miss the playoff.
The Masters is just three weeks away, and Tiger Woods, the four-time champion, should be very much in the mix. He has not won in over two and half years in a full-field event, no Majors since 2008. He did win the Chevron World Challenge in December, and a win is a win, but the field had just 19 players.
Tiger is showing signs that he is close to bursting out of his drought. He finished second three weeks ago at the Honda Classic, tied for second with a dramatic career-best final round 62.
U.S. Open Champion Rory McIlroy won by two strokes to become World No. 1 for the very first time at age 22. Tiger two weeks ago was playing well at Doral in Miami at the World Golf Championship until he had tightness in his left Achilles. He did not finish.
Only 16 players in history have been No. 1 in World Golf rankings; Tiger and Donald are the only players to hold the No. 1-spot twice. Can Tiger go get No. 1 a third time? He’s back in the top 20 after slipping to number 50 last year.
From a talent and experience standpoint, Tiger is superior to all the players. However, health is another issue. Tiger is just 36, so he has a lot of great golf in front of him. He’s motivated. His new swing is tight.
I like what I see — he’s hitting it just as far as or longer than anybody. If he gets his putting stroke back, he will be a Major winner again, and for Tiger it’s about Majors — he has 14.
Jack Nicklaus has 18. Even though he has not won in a while and we all know why — personal issues, public scandal, marriage breakup and injuries — Tiger is still two years ahead of Nicklaus’s pace. Nicklaus did not win his 15th career Major until he was 38.
Health permitting, Tiger will get four cracks at it again this year. He’s won four Masters, three U.S. Opens, three British Opens and four PGAs.
I predict he will be returning to the winner’s circle in the next month. As strong as the talent pool is in worldwide golf, Tiger’s greatest challenge is ahead, because he has never won a Major since his father Earl died and since his divorce. Mentally, he has the mind to overcome it.
Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, and on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm; he also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2), and you can follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.