LOS ANGELES -- Luke Donald was on the practice range at Riviera before dawn Wednesday, so dark that only temporary floodlights allowed him to see where the ball was going.
It was a snapshot of the perks that come with being No. 1 in the world, and what got him there.
2012 NORTHERN TRUST OPEN
This year's edition of the Northern Trust Open is the 48th PGA Tour event that Riviera has hosted since it opened in 1926.
The best player gets his choice of tee times for the pro-am, and the early spots go first. Along with being No. 1 in the world, Donald sits atop both the PGA Tour and European Tour money lists, the first player ever to lead the two biggest tours.
As for the work ethic? Getting to the top wasn’t an accident.
“I think the best part of being No. 1 is knowing that my best golf is good enough to get me to that No. 1 spot, just from a confidence and mental standpoint,” Donald said. “That’s gratifying to know that the hard work is paying off.”
The hardest part might be the encore.
Donald is coming off a year he won’t ever forget, and it all began at Riviera with a round he would like to erase from his memory. In his first event, he shot a 79 in the second round to miss the cut.
Toward the end of his season, he had won a career-best four times, including the most exciting finish this side of a major when he birdied six straight holes to start the back nine at Disney and closed with a 64 for a two-shot victory. It gave him the double money title, and was enough to make him a landslide winner of PGA Tour Player of the Year.
Off the course was joy and grief.
His father, Colin, died of heart failure just a few days before Donald’s wife gave birth to their second daughter.
“Obviously, a decent amount of my work had already been done,” Donald said. “I’d had a great season up until that point. And in a way, those couple weeks were very tough. I think the birth of my second daughter helped shed a little bit of grace on the whole situation. It helped with the passing of my father. And I think I came out of it a stronger person with a little bit more perspective.”
His father rarely went to golf tournaments. He was proud of his son more as a person than just a golfer. The last two years had been a struggle, as his father went from double knee replacement to an addiction to pain killers, then bouts of depression.
One moment stands out for Donald, and he wasn’t even there.
He was at Wentworth, fighting a flawed swing to stay in the hunt long enough to get into a playoff with Lee Westwood, beat him on the first extra hole and replace him as No. 1 in the world.
Donald’s brother, Christian, was home that weekend with their father, watching it unfold on television.
“He looked in Chris’ eye, and it was a proud moment,” Donald said. “He’s always been proud and supportive, more proud of the person I turned into.”
Donald opened his season in Abu Dhabi with a tie for 48th, the first time since August that he didn't finish among the top 12. That’s still better than missing the cut, as he did at the Northern Trust Open a year ago.
Riviera is where Donald comes full circle.
He leads a field that features two-time winner Phil Mickelson, coming off his six-shot comeback to win last week at Pebble Beach; a pair of Aussies in Jason Day and Adam Scott, who are playing the PGA Tour for the first time this year; and Padraig Harrington, who started to show some long lost form at Pebble Beach.
Also playing is Sergio Garcia, a regular partner of Donald in the Ryder Cup. Garcia once talked about winning money titles on both sides of the Atlantic, and he was impressed -- as was most everyone -- that Donald got it done.
“Very remarkable,” Garcia said. “It’s never really been done by a guy that is a member of both tours, so it shows you how difficult it is to do it. For a guy like Luke to be able to do it, as well as No. 1, it was great to see.”
Donald finally is getting the respect for his feats, especially his world ranking.
Westwood got the same questions, mostly from an American audience -- how can a guy be No. 1 without ever winning a major? Those questions mainly were born out of comparisons to Tiger Woods, who had been No. 1 for 10 years of his career, and who won majors with regularity. The world ranking is about accumulating points, and no one was more consistent than Donald.
By the end of the year, there were no questions about who was No. 1 in the world.
“I think the way in which I won in Disney helped, and winning both money titles,” Donald said. “People, especially my peers, realized what an accomplishment that was, playing a limited schedule and pulling off both money titles. I think I went up in the estimation of my peers.”
As for the majors?
That’s a priority.
The Masters is two months away, and Donald is building toward that. He’ll play the next two weeks, including his first title defense at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, then play consecutive weeks in Florida at Doral and Tampa.
Donald talks about a strong will to succeed, and there’s no reason to think that won’t apply during the four biggest weeks of the year.
“I feel like my game is good enough right now to win majors,” Donald said. “I don’t feel like there’s a huge weakness. If I can win four times in a year, I should be able to win a major. There are still things I can improve on to give myself better opportunities.”