Luke Donald saw off the persistent challenge of Ireland's Graeme McDowell to advance to the second round of the WGC World Match Play Championship here last night. The Englishman still has four more opponents to conquer if he is to contest Sunday's final. But he is looking more confident than he has in years.
In fact, he resembles an entirely different player than the one who had to withdraw in the most bizarre fashion possible in this same event last year. Donald was on the 18th tee when he reached out and shook the hand of a stunned Ernie Els. What was this? He was conceding, despite only having a few shots to play? The pain in his wrist was coursing panic through his veins and he had to leave right there and then to see his consultant in New York...
Fortunately, the medic assured him it was just a twinge and was not, as he feared, a recurrence of the tendon injury which kept him out of the 2008 Ryder Cup. He could continue his rehabilitation – but it would be long and it would be frustrating. Indeed, only now, in the first months of this new decade does Donald look like Donald again. On the back of a runner-up placing in Los Angeles last month, the forgotten man of English golf reminded all of his quality in his 2&1 defeat of McDowell. Eight birdies in 17 holes turned up the heat in the desert.
"For the second year running I ran into a buzz saw," said McDowell, who last year was knocked out by Zach Johnson. "Every time I had a sniff, Luke made a great putt. He putted his eyes out."
Long may it continue as this is an important week in the season for the 32-year-old. As he is based primarily in the States, the only hope of gaining an automatic berth on Colin Montgomerie's Ryder Cup side is to perform well in the top events. Donald knows what it is required. "The WGC events and majors are huge for me this year with the Ryder Cup in mind," he said. "It's always at the top of my goals."
Montgomerie will definitely want him at Celtic Manor. Donald has won five and a half points out of a possible seven in his two appearances in the biennial dust-up so far and his record in the Walker Cup was even more red-lettered. He played four singles and won four singles. Donald may not be the longest hitter but he is evidently suited to the mano-a-mano format.
Any competitor, however, will see the name of Geoff Ogilvy in the second round and quiver. The Australian is the undeniable master of this matchplay stuff, having reached the final three of the four times he has teed it up. That is a remarkable statistic in a shootout event as volatile as this. But then when he can wreak the 7&6 havoc which poor Alexander Noren was on the wrong end of yesterday morning, it is possible to understand why he is dominant. Ogilvy reeled off seven holes on the spin from the seventh, crushing the young Swedish debutant.
Earlier, Henrik Stenson, the 2007 winner, lasted just one hole before conceding his match to the American Ben Crane. Stenson woke up with the flu and had no energy on the range. So why try to play? A steadfast refusal to allow the weakness of his body conquer the strength of his mind? Er, no. The Swede needed to finish at least one hole so he could count this event in the 15 he needs to satisfy his PGA Tour membership. A farcical scenario, most would agree. Particularly as Stenson collected a $45,000 first-round loser prize in the process.