Five weeks after a stunning finish at Disney World, Luke Donald returns to competition at the Nedbank Challenge feeling refreshed and validated at No. 1.
The Englishman plays his first event this week since reeling off six straight birdies on the back nine to win the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic on Oct. 23 and clinch the PGA Tour money title.
Having accomplished phase one of his mission to become the first player to top the U.S. and European money lists in the same season, Donald said the win in Orlando confirmed his place as the top golfer this season, despite the absence of a major title.
“It’s nice to come up with great shots and great putting and everything that went with that when you need it the most,” Donald said at Sun City on Wednesday. “I obviously had a pretty good amount of catching up to beat Webb.”
He added his recent break allowed him to “savor” his Disney World moment, where he came from five shots back to shoot 30 over his last nine holes. He also rested at home and celebrated the birth of his second child.
His unprecedented success on both tours can only be spoiled by Rory McIlroy, who trails Donald by a little over $1.3 million on the European Tour. The No. 2-ranked Northern Irishman could make the season-ending Dubai World Championship a race for the money title with a victory at the UBS Hong Kong Open this weekend.
While South Africa’s $5 million Nedbank Challenge has a hefty winner’s check of $1.25 million, that cash doesn’t count on the European Tour should Donald win this weekend at the Gary Player Country Club.
“We’ll see what Rory does this week and how much pressure he can put on me. I’m sure it won’t be easy. I’m sure he’ll put up a fight, and I’m looking forward to the challenge,” Donald said. “Usually after the break, I come back feeling a lot stronger about my game.
“Obviously, I would love to walk away with both money lists because that would be history.”
While Donald is certain his layoff will be a help rather than a hindrance for his final two events of the season, Sun City defending champion and No. 3-ranked Lee Westwood is still the favorite at the South African casino resort course that favors the big drivers.
Westwood also arrived at Sun City last year as a majorless top-ranked player and doubted by some as a true successor to Tiger Woods. While he had a dominant eight-shot win at the 2010 Nedbank Challenge, this has been a subdued season for Westwood.
“I’ve come here to have a good week and enjoy myself,” Westwood said after shooting a 68 in Wednesday’s pro-am. “It’s a great week, a 12-man field, at a golf course I enjoy playing. A great spot.”
Martin Kaymer joins Donald and Westwood in South Africa to give the Nedbank Challenge three of the top four ranked players.
The 12-man field also includes Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, British Open champion Darren Clarke, former U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, South Korea’s Kyung-tae Kim, Robert Karlsson, Simon Dyson, Anders Hansen, U.S. player Jason Dufner and Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who replaced the injured Thomas Bjorn.
Schwartzel will be backed by the boisterous home crowd at Sun City as the only South African at this year’s event. It will be his seventh tournament on consecutive weekends.