BMW CHAMPIONSHIP: A home game was just what Luke Donald needed

This has been a tough season for Luke Donald. The world’s No. 1 player for 55 weeks in 2011 and 2012 missed the cut in both the British Open and PGA Championship. Some home cooking, though, got him out of his funk.

The former Northwestern golfer came into the BMW Championship on his home course and, presto!, his golf game is back in business.

Donald entered the tournament at No. 54 in the FedEx Cup Playoff rankings, leaving him with seemingly little hope of getting into the top 30 for next week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta. Missing that one would be painful, since another $8 million is on the line, and every qualifier will pick up at least $300,000 for just playing 72 more holes.

Oh, yes, there’s the matter of the $10 million bonus that goes to the FedEx Cup winner after the Tour Championship concludes the four-event series.

Donald has little hope of claiming the big prize, but at least he has a chance. His 67-66 finish at Conway Farms boosted him into a four-way tie for fourth place in the BMW Championship and elevated him from 54th to 29th in the FedEx Cup rankings.

“I thought I had to finish top five at the very worst for the week, and I was hoping that being a member here would help me,’’ said Donald. “I think it did a bit.’’

Despite his sub-par season Donald was in the spotlight at Conway, where he’s been a member been a member for 15 years. He started playing at the Lake Forest course when he was still a student at Northwestern and he campaigned with the Western Golf Assn. and PGA Tour to get the tournament moved from Cog Hill, the tourney’s home in Lemont for 20 years.

Donald believes his campaigning was worth it, and expects the tourney to return to Conway in 2015.

“It’s done well on all fronts – on fan attendance, on selling (corporate hospitality) tents and the players have been very positive about it,’’ said Donald. “It looks great on TV, and it’s been a success from my standpoint.’’

Donald was a success on the course thanks to birdies on the last two holes. He knew they would probably be needed to qualify him for Atlanta.

“There were nerves the last couple holes, probably from 15 onwards,’’ he said. “I knew I had gotten myself into position where we had a chance. Fortunately I was able to hit some good shoots when I needed it hit them.’’

Donald, 35, felt the need to do a painful thing as his game was seemingly slipping away. He recently replaced Pat Goss as his swing coach, turning to Chuck Cook instead. Goss was the head coach at NU when Donald played there and their working relationship continued into the professional ranks.

Goss remains Donald’s short-game coach, and his college loyalty is still intact. He left immediately after Monday’s round to attend Wildcat Golf Day at Evanston Golf Club. From there it’ll be on to East Lake in Atlanta where he hopes his sudden golf turn-around will continue. It’s still mathematically possible he could win the FedEx Cup.

“It’s unlikely, but it’s certainly been done before when you look at what Bill Haas did a couple years ago, winning – I think – from the 27th position,’’ said Donald. “I’ve notoriously played pretty well at East Lake. I’ve had chances to win there.’’

Donald was one of only two players to move into the top 30 at the BMW Championship. Nick Watney, who rallied with a 64 on Monday to finish second, also climbed into the top 30 at No. 12. Harris English and Lee Westwood, in the top 30 before the BMW Championship, finished outside of it.

Three others will Illinois connections advanced to East Lake. University of Illinois alum Steve Stricker, who was in the tie for fourth at Conway Farms, is No. 6 for the Playoffs. The five ahead of him – Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar – will win the $10 million if they win in Atlanta. If none do Stricker could claim the biggest money prize in golf.

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman goes in at No. 19 after finishing in a tie for 33rd on Monday. Another Illinois alum, D.A. Points, slipped to No. 28 after tying for 57th in the BMW Championship.