Return to winner’s circle proves elusive for Donald at Honda Classic

South Korea’s Sungjae Im celebrates his Honda Classic win and checks out his new car.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL. – Luke Donald knew the drill. To win on the Champion Course at PGA National you don’t take many chances. The Jack Nicklaus-designed layout is too tough. It’s annually one of the hardest courses on the circuit.

“There’s just such a lot of nerve-racking and daunting shots out here so you’re playing to a lot of good, safe targets,’’ said Donald, who lives at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter just 10 miles from PGA National. “Often times I’ve finished up four rounds here and just kick myself. If I’d played little bit safer in spots and holed a putt here or there I would have been right there.’’

That game plan didn’t work for Donald on Sunday. He had a solid chance to claim his first PGA Tour victory in eight years and give his comeback from lingering back issues a big boost, but that didn’t happen.

Playing in the next-to-the-last group to tee off, Donald parred the first hole and stuck his approach on the second a foot from the cup, setting up a tap-in birdie that pulled him within a shot of the lead.

Luke Donald couldn’t stay in contention during the final round of the Honda Classic.

For Donald, that was the end of story. His tee shot at No. 3 found water, leading to a bogey. He made another one on the next hole and never got anything going after that until a birdie putt dropped at No. 18. The end result, a final round 72 which dropped him from a tie for third to a tie for 11th.

It was a trying weekend for Donald after he jumped into contention with a 4-under-par 66 on Friday. Even though he is a past champion in the Honda Classic, a former world No. 1 and a Jupiter resident for many years he wasn’t shown much respect at the first tee on Saturday.

The announcer introduced him as “Luke McDonald’’ and said he was the 2016 Honda Classic champion. Not only was his name butchered, Donald’s title came in 2006, not 2016. He shrugged of that annoying incident, but his game wasn’t the same as it had been the day before. Donald struggled in with a 71, still good enough to put him in position to win with strong final round.

He couldn’t deliver, and 21-year South Korean Sungjae Im won the title. He deserved it, too, shooting a 4-under-par 66 on Sunday for a one-stroke victory over Canada’s Mackenzie Hughes who also shot a 66. Im was 6-under 274 for the tourney’s 72 holes.

Im won twice, had three runner-up finishes and won the money title on the PGA’s satellite Korn Ferry Tour last year. He earned $1,260,000 and a new car for his first win on the premier circuit.

Im and Hughes played together and staged a dazzling head-to-head duel down the stretch. Hughes made a 54-foot birdie putt on the 17th green to pull even with Im. The tie didn’t last long, though. Im made his own birdie putt from eight feet at No. 17 and then saved par from a green-side bunker on the finishing hole to secure the victory.

Wheaton’s Kevin Streelman, the other Chicago area tour player to qualify for weekend play, shot a 6-over 75 in the final round and dropped 24 spots to a tie for 47th.

The PGA Tour continues its four-tournament Florida Swing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, in Orlando, this week with Rory McIlroy the defending champion.