Donald beats nation’s best at the Ford

Bernard Schwartz

At this weekend’s Ford U.S. Collegiate Championships down in Mexico, many of the nation’s best gunned for one of college golf’s highest prizes, but it was Northwestern’s Luke Donald who outdueled them all.

Donald, a senior, only got better as the 54-hole, nationally televised event progressed. Shooting rounds of 70 and 67 to get into contention, Donald then fired a personal best, a 7-under 65 to claim the come-from-behind victory over Georgia’s Nick Cassini, who led by two after the second round.

The weekend triumph was Donald’s 10th career title, but only his first since winning medalist honors at last year’s Big Ten championships.

“I’ve been playing well all year, but things haven’t clicked,” Donald said. “This week they did. This week the putts dropped for a change.”

While Donald managed a breakthrough of sorts with his victory at the Ford Championships, NU continued to struggle, managing only an 11th-place finish and failing once again to make a convincing argument that they deserve to be ranked with this year’s top teams.

One of those top teams is No. 1 Georgia, which ran away with the Ford Championships. The Bulldogs routed the field by 33 strokes. With four of its five golfers finishing in the top 10 – and a combined score of 29-under – no other team came close. Not even No. 2 Georgia Tech, which took second place at 4-under, nor No. 3 Clemson, which tied for third with Arizona State at 10-over, could overtake them.

Still, NU’s four-hour flight back wasn’t all disappointment and frustration. The Cats had Donald’s record-breaking victory to celebrate. His 14-under 202 was the lowest 54-hole total ever shot by an NU golfer, replacing the previous record of 204, which Donald set at last year’s Ford Championships.

“He’s been close to this all year, but couldn’t seem to break out,” Goss said. “He strung three great rounds together, and in that type of place with that type of field, Luke’s performance was pretty awesome.”

But Donald’s was the only awesome performance for the Cats, with nobody else performing even respectably. Freshman Tom Johnson was NU’s second-best finisher, and he barely made the top-35 with a tie for 34th. Sophomore Chris Thayer tied for 48th place. And sophomore Scott Harrington and senior David Shaffer finished 59th and 60th – second-to-last and last place.

“For Luke to win and us to finish 11th, it’s like last year when he and Jess [Daley] finished second and third and we were only seventh,” Harrington said. “It’s definitely embarrassing.”

So Donald’s victory becomes more significant when it’s seen not just as the latest in the proud career of a superior college golfer, but as that rare bright spot in what has been a season devoid of shining moments.

“Luke’s win made us all the more aware of how bad we’ve been playing,” Harrington said. “But hopefully we can build off this. We know his game is starting to peak. Hopefully, all our games will peak.”

In the traditional sense, golf is not to be considered a team sport, for individual success is never directly affected by the failings of the team. Nothing proves this more than Donald’s win, for he managed to achieve medalist honors at a tournament which saw his team 11th in a field of 12.

But college golf is a team sport in the sense that heavy priority is placed on the success of the group, and it is for this additional reason that Donald’s victory retains added significance for all of the Cats.

His victory is something positive the whole team can use.

“The team knows how great a player he is,” Goss said. “They know how hard he works, and what all this means to him. For them to see it come to fruition, it’s very impressive.”

So Donald’s impression is a lasting one, and his leadership by example is something his younger teammates rely on.

“He was at his best this weekend,” Johnson said. “He just did it in such a professional style. Now the other guys have to do their part.”