PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO | When the rain-soaked El Camaleon Golf Course finally became playable so the Mayakoba Golf Classic could be contested, the players knew what was coming.
With conditions so soft on Friday that some approach shots plugged directly into their pitch marks on the greens, Danny Lee had a legitimate shot to break 60 well before lunchtime. The Greg Norman-designed course was the sixth-shortest course on the PGA Tour last season and only has one defense in conditions such as these: narrow corridors with an unforgiving jungle abyss guarding each side. Joaquin Niemann fed three balls into the wild in his 5-over 76 and discovered how easy it can be to fall 14 shots behind the leader.
For those who found the fairways, the remainder of the equation became elementary. Twenty-three players shot 5-under 66 or better, and many in that group are short drivers such as Brian Gay, Zach Johnson, Graeme McDowell and Chez Reavie.
With this being one of the few weeks on the PGA Tour where distance isn’t vital, the saga of Luke Donald comes to mind. He opened with a 66, his second-lowest score on the PGA Tour since the spring of 2017.
The way golf is played now, the 41-year-old Donald has been marginalized, perhaps more quickly than anyone else of his stature over the past decade. He won both the PGA Tour and European Tour player-of-the-year awards in 2011 while taking over the No. 1 spot in the world ranking. Donald had another three victories in 2012, made 23 of 24 cuts and finished the year No. 2 in the world.
What happened to take Donald from one of the most respected players in the game to a guy ranked outside the top 400, all in a few years?
The answer may be in another question. When was the last time you watched professional golf and saw an approach hit the green and spin backwards uncontrollably? Or the last time a TV commentator mentioned that a wedge shot needed to be a three-quarter effort with a lower trajectory to control the spin?
Those were nuances in the game that Donald mastered at a high level. He was far superior in that skill relative to his peers. During his electrifying 2011 season, Donald ranked No. 92 in strokes gained off the tee but No. 2 in strokes gained tee to green. That meant his superb iron play, which statistically sat atop the PGA Tour, carried exponentially more value than his driving.
“It’s not like I can go out there and suddenly hit it 320 yards. I’ve got to work on what has made me the success I’ve been on the tour, which is still 120 yards and in. I have goals to improve my approach play.” – Luke Donald
So much is made of how the driver has become the most valuable club in the bag, but just as telling is that players have a harder time differentiating themselves on approach shots. Six years ago, the value in being the best tee-to-green player was skewed mainly toward how strong of an iron player you were.
That has flipped. On Friday at Mayakoba, the threesome of Dylan Frittelli, Harris English and J.T. Poston were hitting their wedge shots into the par-4 17th. The flag was all the way in the back with a ridge about 10 feet in front of the hole location. If any of the players were concerned with spin, the shot would have become more challenging and more interesting; they would have been forced to decide whether to risk short-siding themselves over the green or playing a “dead hands” type of shot that would react accordingly.
Instead, all three of them hit shots that landed on the green and rolled a few feet forward. Frittelli’s, in fact, went in the hole. There were differences in the quality of each shot – there always are in golf – but the predictability of the flight and how it reacted on the putting surface looked just about identical.
Donald didn’t lose his game. The game left him.
One of the most interesting parts of watching players at the highest level is when the ball is on the ground, out of their control. Donald used to differentiate himself by being the best at knowing what his ball would do once it made contact with land. That’s been eradicated.
For reference to Donald’s statistics in 2011, Henrik Stenson was the leader in strokes gained approach last year. Stenson didn’t crack the top-20 in the tee-to-green component because he ranked No. 163 off the tee. And he never came close to winning a tournament.
Donald, of course, knows all of this because he has lived it. Even as the game transitioned to limit what he did best, Donald still finished 105th or better in the FedEx Cup through 2017. He had a herniated disc in his back that caused him to slow down significantly since then, but it hasn’t taken away his desire. He battled for a top-10 finish at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour earlier this fall, and he remains optimistic that a healthy back can free him.
“It was great to be in contention again,” Donald said after the first round of the Mayakoba. “I’ve been working a lot harder over the past few weeks and my back feels like it’s in a good place now to handle that.
“Using the ground better – I’ve always used my hands a lot – but using the ground to take pressure off my back and keep the clubface squarer for longer, has given me a little bit more control.”
He’s currently playing on a major medical extension and needs 220.7 FedEx Cup points in his next three starts to retain PGA Tour status. If he fails to reach that mark, he will likely use a top-25 career earnings exemption.
It’s often assumed that Donald sees his driving-distance numbers – he averages around 285 yards off the tee – and feels compelled to add power. He’s actually looking to improve other parts of his game.
“It’s not like I can go out there and suddenly hit it 320 yards,” Donald said. “I’ve got to work on what has made me the success I’ve been on the tour, which is still 120 yards and in. I have goals to improve my approach play.
“With driving, it’s less about getting more distance and more about improving my accuracy. When you put all of those together, that should push me forward.”
A part of golf’s charm is that the golf ball doesn’t know your age or anything about you. For as long as he wants to play, Donald will get his chances to perform well on shorter and narrower venues. The other weeks won’t be impossible, but they will feel improbable.
That’s golf the way it has evolved, for better or for worse.
With length at such a premium on the PGA Tour, shorter hitters such as Luke Donald have been marginalized. Photo: Stuart Franklin, Getty Images
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