Donald has “special short game shot” ready for the Masters

Last year Luke Donald was the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer entering all four of the sport’s major championships. He was No. 1 for 55 weeks, and it was at the 2012 Masters that his duel for the top spot with Rory McIlroy started.

This year’s Masters begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club and Donald has dropped to No. 4 in the world (behind Tiger Woods, McIlroy and Justin Rose) and he hasn’t been having a Luke Donald type of year so far. The Northwestern graduate and long-time Chicago area resident had a tie for fourth as his best showing in four starts on the PGA Tour and he missed the cut the week at the European PGA Tour’s Maybank Malaysian Open.

That missed cut in his last tournament appearance was significant, as it was his first MC on the European circuit after surviving in his first 118 events.

Tweeting that he was “hugely disappointed,’’ Donald philosophized that “all good things come to an end eventually’’ and returned to his winter residence in Jupiter, FL., to prepare for the Masters.

His long-time Northwestern coach, Pat Goss, spent last weekend with Donald. Goss says the missed cut is no cause for concern and that Donald has “a special short game shot that he has worked on for Augusta….You won’t be able to miss it when he uses it!’’

But their Masters preparation hasn’t been easy. Donald and Goss were to meet at Augusta National last Thursday but bad weather there led to them hooking up in Florida instead. They went to Augusta for Friday and Saturday practice sessions and the Friday practice round lasted an unusually long 4 ½ hours with Donald playing by himself and hitting plenty of extra shots en route to the green.

“That’s an example of how important he thinks it is to figure out where you can miss it around the greens and how important short game and putting are at Augusta,’’ said Goss. On Saturday Donald practiced in the morning and played 18 holes with fellow competitor Matteo Manassero in the afternoon, then returned to Jupiter before returning to Augusta on Monday.

Donald conducted his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday and is excited to have his 3-year old daughter Elle be his caddy in Wednesday’s par-3 contest. After that it’s all business, as Donald tries again to claim his coveted first major title.

He’s come closest at the Masters – a tie for third in his first one in 2005. His third top-10 there in eight appearances came in a tie for fourth in 2011 but he tied for 32nd last April.

Donald’s tournament results this season aren’t encouraging, but there’s a reason. He initiated swing changes in the offseason in hopes of adding a reliable draw to his list of shot options, and swing tweaks frequently cause temporary setbacks in performance.

In is last extensive interview prior to this week Donald said he’s making progress with his swing change. His best U.S. tournament was his last one, a tie for fourth at the Tampa Bay Championship where he was the defending champion. Kevin Streelman won there, but Donald was pleased after a bogey-free weekend.

“I’ve made a lot of progress. My game is trending,’’ Donald said three weeks ago. “Hopefully I’m peaking at just the right time.’’

He skipped the PGA Tour’s Bay Hill Invitational the following week to go to Malaysia, a move that was due at least in part to the availability of appearance money. Donald, with over $28 million earned in American PGA tournaments alone, didn’t need it but there were other factors.

“I’ve struggled at Bay Hill. I don’t feel like the course suits my game very well,’’ said Donald, who rested during the Shell Houston Open and Valero Texas Open the past two weeks.

“I’ve never played that well at Houston, and I don’t know anything about Valero,’’ said Donald. “Certainly I didn’t want to take three weeks off before Augusta.’’

Donald, like McIlroy, is a member of both the PGA and European tours and playing in Malaysia helped him fulfill commitments in Europe. The absence of the pressure of being No. 1 helps, too.

“There are less people looking at me, less media attention with more on Rory and Tiger,’’ said Donald. “I can go about my business a little bit more.’’

Goss considers Donald’s game “very solid right now’’ and that the swing change won’t be a factor at the Masters.

“The key for him,’’ said Goss, “will be seeing some putts go in. We’ve worked a lot on his putting, and it is technically good. He just needs that confidence that comes from holing some putts.’’