At one point in time, Luke Donald was on top of the golf world. In 2011, he became just the second man in history to reach the top spot in the world rankings despite never winning a major championship, joining fellow countryman Lee Westwood. That same year, he became the first player to ever top the money list on both the PGA Tour and European Tour, a feat since duplicated by current world number one Rory McIlroy.
Luke Donald last held the top spot in the rankings in 2012. Since then, he’s dealt with a number of injuries and has struggled to even keep his status, having to rely on exemptions just to play. Following a missed cut at the Sony Open in January 2019, Donald fell to 652nd in the rankings and then dropped to 919th when a lingering injury forced him out of action. But in the 15 months since that low point, he’s jumped up 550 spots and wants to prove that he’s still got something left in the tank.
Luke Donald rises to No. 1
Born in England, Luke Donald chose to play his college golf in the United States, enrolling at Northwestern in 1997. Following a stellar career with the Wildcats, a career in which he won an NCAA championship by breaking Tiger Woods‘ scoring record, Donald turned pro in 2001 and won his first PGA Tour event in 2002. In 2004, he won two events on the European Tour, made his Ryder Cup debut, and also won the WGC-World Cup with Paul Casey. He finished the year ranked 25th in the world.
In April 2005, Donald finished third at The Masters and vaulted to 13th in the world. In 2006, he won his second PGA Tour event and reached the top 10 in the world for the first time, also going 3-0 in the Ryder Cup. He sustained a wrist injury in 2008 that hindered his career for a stretch but he fought back and won for the first time in four years in 2010 at the Madrid Masters. It was then that Luke Donald really turned it on.
2011 was one of the most underrated years a player has ever had. Despite not winning a major, Donald reached the top spot in the world with some of the most consistent play in history. He won three tournaments, including the WGC-Match Play, finished second three times, finished third three times, and finished in the top 10 in 20 of the 27 events in which he played.
In 2012, he lost his number one ranking for the final time when Rory McIlroy overtook him at the top after winning his second straight major at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. Between 2011 and 2012, Luke Donald spent 56 weeks at No. 1.
The fall to No. 919
In November 2013, Luke Donald won the Dunlop Phoenix Championship on the Japan Tour, which remains his last career win. He had fallen out of the top 10 earlier in the year and finished the year ranked 16th. At the end of 2014, he was ranked 32nd. In 2015, he actually had to go through sectional qualifying just to play the U.S. Open and finished the year ranked 72nd. In 2016, he failed to qualify for The Masters for the first time since 2004 and hasn’t played at Augusta since. He finished the season out of the top 75, ranked 77th. In 2017, he fell out of the top 100 after missing the final two months of the year after being rushed to the hospital with chest pains during the first round of the RSM Classic.
Upon his return in 2018, Luke Donald missed the cut in six of eight tournaments. Herniated discs then forced him to miss six months of action and he had to rely on a medical exemption just to play on the PGA Tour in 2019. The aforementioned missed cut at the Sony Open in early 2019 dropped him to 652nd in the world. Forced to miss another two months due to the lingering back pain, Donald dropped all the way down to 919th, his lowest ranking since his first year as a pro.
Luke Donald is fighting his way back
In his first tournament back in 2019, Luke Donald tied for ninth at the Valspar Championship, his first top-10 finish on the PGA Tour in two years. In June, he made his first cut at a major championship since 2016 at the U.S. Open. In September, he carded a top-10 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour.
No, he’s not the player he once was and he’s fully aware of that. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to quit. He played three events in 2020 before COVID-19 shut down the golf world, getting better in every tournament. After missing the cut in Phoenix, he made the weekend and tied for 55th at Pebble Beach. Three weeks later, he tied for 11th at the Honda Classic.
Luke Donald’s medical exemption ended in February. He’s now playing on a career earnings exemption, one of two exemptions he had left to use. Donald has made more than $36.4 million on the PGA Tour, good for 24th on the all-time list. Any player in the top 25 on the all-time money list can use a special, one-time exemption to maintain status, which is what he’s using now. But there’s also an additional exemption for players in the top 50 on the all-time list. It’s not an either-or situation and if Donald can’t get his status back with a win or by finishing in the top 125 on the FedEx Cup points list (he’s currently 174th), he can use the top-50 exemption next season.
Luke Donald, now 42 years old, is in the field this week at the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town, a tournament where he’s had great success in the past, finishing as the runner-up five times. Donald is now ranked 369th in the world, a far cry from No. 1 but up 550 spots from where he was 15 months ago. Maybe he wins again someday and maybe he doesn’t. Either way, he’s doing just fine. Again, he’s won more than $36.4 million in his career and has three beautiful daughters with his wife, Diane, whom he met at Northwestern.
Whether he ever wins again or not, Luke Donald is still out here fighting to compete in a sport he once dominated. And you certainly have to respect that.
*All ranking courtesy of Official World Golf Ranking