A comeback story? Donald has 8-birdie round at Honda Classic

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL. – Could Friday’s second round of the Honda Classic be the start of something big for Luke Donald?

Time will tell, but Donald certainly looked like the golfer who was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings for 56 weeks in 2011 and 2012. The former Northwestern star and member at Conway Farms in Lake Forest made eight birdies in a 13-hole stretch on a cold, windy day to post a 4-under-par 66 on PGA National’s Champion Course.

That was the low score of the day but Brendan Steele, an afternoon starter, garnered the 36-hole lead, shooting a 67 for a 5-under-par 135 score. That was one better than Donald, J.T. Poston and Lee Westwood at the midway point in the first of the four tournaments on the PGA Tour’s annual Florida Swing. U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland is another shot back in the 72-hole test, which ends on Sunday.

“It’s nice to be back in contention. It’s been a little bit of a while since I’ve played decent,’’ said Donald, who has struggled mightily during a two-year struggle with back problems. His Official World Golf Ranking was 456 and his FedEx Cup Ranking stood at 212 entering the Honda Classic.

By his standards Donald last “played decent’’ at the Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour last October – a tie for 10th place. Before that it was last March, when he tied for ninth in another Florida PGA event — the Valspar Championship. In the 2019-20 PGA Tour season Donald made three of four cuts but his best finish was only a tie for 43rd in November’s RSM Championship.

Obviously there’s been a big dropoff for the 42-year old who has won five times on the PGA Tour and has eight international victories. The Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course at PGA National, however, has long been one of Donald’s favorites and that showed on Friday.

The Champion has long been considered one of the toughest courses on the PGA Tour, but Donald has played it consistently well. He won the Honda Classic in 2006 and was runner-up in 2008. He also had three other top-10 finishes, the last being in 2015.

“I practice a lot on Bermuda and am very accustomed to this type of grass,’’ said Donald. “I’ve had decent finishes around this place before. It sets up well for me.’’

Donald, born in England, has had a residence in south Florida for many years. He had an early tee time in the second round, which was played in weather rarely seen in these parts.

“We’re not used to 46 degrees at 7 in the morning,’’ said Donald. “It’s usually a little bit warmer, but I like it when conditions are tough. That’s when I play my best, especially with this northwesterly wind. The course tends to play a little bit tougher this way, and you’ve got to be very patient.’’

Donald was certainly that after a less-than-ideal start. Starting on No. 10, he was 3-over-par after five holes. Then he made birdie twos on two par-3s – Nos. 15 and 17. The second of those came on the last hole of the course’s treacherous Bear Trap, statistically the toughest three-hole stretch on the PGA Tour.

After that it was clear sailing, as Donald made six birdies on the front nine to conclude his round.

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, who is four strokes behind Steele in a tie for 15th, remains in contention but defending champion Keith Mitchell and established stars Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka all missed the 36-hole cut. So did PGA Tour rookie Doug Ghim, of Arlington Heights.