Another near-miss at Heritage puts Donald’s game on upswing again

How do you explain this?

Luke Donald was, for 40 weeks in 2011 and 2012, the world’s No. 1 golfer. Then, by his own admission, his game tailed off – except when he plays in the RBC Heritage Classic on the Harbour Town course in Hilton Head, S.C.

Donald was the runner-up there for the fifth time on Sunday, losing to Wesley Bryan by one stroke, and he also has two third-place finishes at Harbour Town in the last nine years.

“I’ve done everything but win,’’ said the former Northwestern star who has maintained close ties to golf in Chicago despite living in Jupiter, Fla., now. “I just keep trying. Obviously it’s a place I feel comfortable. I’ve got to just keep pounding away and hopefully I’ll get there.’’

Harbour Town has the smallest greens on the PGA Tour and Donald has always been a short game wizard. He also likes the “family-oriented vibe’’ that Hilton Head offers. His three daughters were on spring break and joined him at the tournament last week. That apparently was a tonic for a game that had been misfiring.

Donald had missed the cut at Florida’s Valspar Championship, where he was a past champion, and didn’t qualify for either the Masters for the World Golf Championship Match Play event. To offset those events usually on his schedule Donald entered the Shell Houston Open the week before the Masters, though he never had much success in previous visits there. He didn’t this time either, finishing in a tie for 69th place.

Then, after sitting out the Masters, came the always welcome return to Harbour Town. Donald led alone after a first-round 65 and was tied for the lead after a 67 in Round 2. A third round 72 dropped him down the leaderboard and a double bogey on the par-5 second hole – one of the easiest on the course – dropped him further back early in Sunday’s final round.

Donald, however, rallied on the back nine. He holed a bunker shot for birdie at No. 11 and spent time sharing the top spot on the leaderboard before Bryan held him off. Still, the runner-up finish was Donald’s first top 10 of 2017 and he’s hoping for another strong finish this week at the Valero Texas Open.

“I still believe I have the ability to win a major and win more tournaments,’’ he said. “I’m not hanging up the clubs yet. I’m committed to working hard on my game and get past a little lull in my results the last couple years.’’

He looks on Sergio Garcia’s victory in the Masters as incentive. They played junior matches when both were 12-year olds and were frequent partners for Europe in Ryder Cup matches.

“I grew up knowing him,’’ said Donald. “He came to my wedding, and I’ve been invited to his. He’s in a great place now. He proved to himself he could do it.’’

Now maybe it’s Donald’s turn to do the same.

“I still believe I’m good enough,’’ he said. “Anyone who can get to No. 1 in the world for over a year has the ability to bounce back, and hopefully I will.’’

Kevin Streelman, the PGATour regular from Wheaton, is also in the field at the Valero Texas Open. He’s coming off a two-week break, will play tournaments in six in the next seven weeks and won’t return to his Arizona home until that busy stretch is over. He’ll attend his niece’s wedding during the week he’s off from tournament play.

Here and there

A critical week looms for the women’s teams at Northwestern and Illinois. Both compete for the Big Ten title starting on Friday at TPC Rivers Bend in Mainville, Ohio, then will await the April 27 NCAA selection announcement for the start of its national championship. The finals are May 19-24 at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.

Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy of the Illinois men’s team are among nine semifinalists for the prestigious Ben Hogan Award. They’re the third and fourth Illini golfers accorded that honor, following Charlie Danielson and Scott Langley.

Dave Erickson of St. Andrews, Billy Rosinia of Flagg Creek and Eric Ilic of the Merit Club formed the winning team in the Illinois PGA’s first event of the season – the Pro-Pro-Pro competition at Chicago’s Harborside International. The IPGA holds its first stroke play event next Monday (APRIL 24) at Weaver Ridge in Peoria.

Tin Cup, a golf-themed pub, has opened at the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort.