Donald’s strong showing at Valspar provides uplifting start for local season

Luke Donald is back. Could there be a better feel-good story to mark the start of another Chicago golf season?

One of the greatest players to ever come out of the Chicago amateur ranks, Donald has gone through over two years of difficult times. A herniated disc in his back severely curtailed his play, but – if his strong showing in last week’s PGA Tour stop is any indication – Donald is finally on the comeback trail.

Donald, born and raised in England, blossomed at Northwestern. He was the NCAA champion in 1999 and – after a stunning series of successes — rose to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings in 2012. He stayed there for a while, too – 40 straight weeks and 56 overall. Donald also stayed connected to the Chicago scene, as a member of Conway Farms, in Lake Forest, and a major contributor to the First Tee of Greater Chicago and the Northwestern golf program.

Pat Goss, Donald’s coach at Northwestern, has remained one of his swing instructors and the present Wildcats benefit from the practice facility Donald created at The Glen Club in Glenview. It was only in the last few months that Donald sold his Northfield home. He has also been a long-time resident of Jupiter, FL., where he can practice year-around at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Bear’s Club.

Donald’s back problems started in 2017, a year in which he endured eight straight missed cuts after a second-place finish at the RBC Heritage Classic in Hilton Head, S.C. In 2018 he made only eight tournament starts and missed the cut in six. This year he missed the cut in his first tournament, the Sony Open in Hawaii, in January and then didn’t play again until last week’s Valspar Championship in Florida.

“Backs are tricky, and there were a few things the physios I’ve been working with didn’t like. They thought if I went too hard too early that I could run into some issues,’’ said Donald. He’s playing this season on a Major Medical Extension, meaning he has 15 starts available to earn enough FedEx Cup points to retain full membership on the PGA Tour.

Donald made his second of those starta at the Valspar — the last tournament Donald won, in 2012, and the last in which he survived a 36-hole cut, 376 days earlier. With all the forced time off his world ranking had dropped to No. 919.

Last week he did much more than survive the cut, and you had to be there to fully appreciate that accomplishment. Donald tied for ninth place and was in contention to win through 10 holes of Sunday’s final round. Then a double bogey on a par-5 derailed his chances of overhauling another Englishman, Paul Casey. Casey became the first repeat champion in the tournament’s 19-year history but Donald left with an optimistic outlook.

“People go through injuries. It’s just part of our sport,’’ he said. “I’ve been pretty lucky. This is my 18th season and I only had six months off with a wrist injury. The goal for (the Valspar) was to play four rounds and feel pretty good at the end of the tournament. It had been awhile since I’d done that.’’

Donald is taking this week off, then will play in the Valero Texas Open. He’s not eligible for the Masters the week after that but will be back in the field at the Heritage Classic April 18-21. Donald has a great record there, finishing second five times and third twice.


BITS: Arlington Heights resident Doug Ghim moved into the critical No. 25 position in the Tour standings with his 19th place finish in last week’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open. If he can stay in the top 25 through the end of the season Ghim will earn PGA Tour membership for the 2019-20 season.

Lisa Quinn, executive director of the First Tee of Greater Chicago the past seven years, has announced her resignation from the post. She will remain on the job though May 31 to assist in the transition process.

Two new directors of golf have been named at Chicago area facilities. Brian Hilko has taken over at Orchard Valley, in Aurora, and Ben Nactwey at Fox Bend, in Oswego.

Batavia-based club manufacturer Tour Edge has re-signed three-time World Long Drive champion Phillis Meti to play its EXS driver.

Two Illinois golfers have posted resounding victories in collegiate tournaments. Illinois freshman Adrien Dumont de Chassart was a six-shot winner at North Carolina’s Tar Heel Invitational and Illinois State’s Trent Wallace won the South Florida Invitational by five.