2012: The Year Ahead – Donald v. McIlroy
“What a season. Winning both money lists might never be done again. Amazing effort, number 1!” A touching sentiment from the second best player in the world, Rory McIlroy, sent via twitter after confirmation that Luke Donald had done the miraculous and won both the PGA and European Tour money lists. Even with his first major championship under his belt, the 2011 season undoubtedly belonged to Donald, and will indisputably be recognised as such. But with 2011 now officially over, and the new season just around the corner, will the duo trade places atop the Official World Golf Ranking, or will Donald further extend his lead on the chasing pack? With the Ulsterman joining the PGA Tour next season, the predominant rivalry might well occur between the two former Ryder Cup team mates, and not between McIlroy and Tiger Woods; the latter would require two major Championship victories, one World Golf Championship victory and one regular PGA Tour victory to displace Donald from his position as world number one.
In truth, it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of a rivalry that will surely captivate everyone associated with the game, as well as the broader sports fan. Based on evidence from this year, it could go either way, and the psychological side of the game will be of unquestionable significance. Rewind to the start of June, and one would have to admit that both Donald and McIlroy lacked the mental strength and resilience of players such as Woods. Both have since taken enormous steps to rectify this all important facet. McIlroy, in one of the most scintillating performances in major championship history, put aside his disastrous final round at the Masters to claim the US Open – the toughest Major to win – by eight shots. Donald – who often struggled coming from behind in tournaments – recorded a momentous six birdies in a row from the 10th at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in Florida to ultimately win by two shots. In both instances, mental strength was the key factor behind success. Next season, I fully expect both Donald and McIlroy to have a similar amount of victories at regular PGA and European Tour events, but the major championships will be the real test, and I worry about Luke Donald.
The problem is that his remarkable consistency hasn’t translated to major championship success which, after this season, will be the only thing that constitutes improvement. His record for the year on both sides of the Atlantic is almost as good as it is possible to get: 20 top ten finishes in his last 25 events and four victories along the way. Simply put, every season from here on in will be a disappointment unless he wins a major or wins both money lists again. Given that the latter has only occurred once in the history of golf, it seems extremely unlikely to happen again. The pressure on his shoulders to triumph at a major will be huge, as it was with Montgomery and still is with Lee Westwood: continually asked if a win is imminent, continually saying yes, continually failing to record victory. It would be foolish to write Donald off, however. He confessed after Dubai that every win and every positive result gives him more and more faith in his own ability, something that he needs to believe in staunchly amid inevitable media speculation and assessment of his mental fortitude. As it stands, he is unsurprisingly in a positive frame of mind: “I’m excited to bring my experiences of 2011 to the majors and hopefully that will help me.”
Donald deserves a major, but being deserving of something doesn’t always lead to its realisation. With the return of Tiger and increased rivalry on the PGA Tour, where he will play the majority of his events, I suspect he will need to win a major to stay at world number one. Winning your first event on tour is paramount, but not as important as the mental significance of winning a major and allaying any fears about your own aptitude and capability. McIlroy has achieved that, and I’m convinced he will win at least one major next year, starting with victory at Augusta National in April.
If Donald can harness the positivity and confidence achieved through his achievements this year, then a major is on the cards in 2012, but there is simply no way of predicting whether this will come to fruition, and by extension, no way of predicting who will fare better between Donald and McIlroy next year. They will have extremely similar schedules and challenges; both will play several events in Europe, both will have to deal with Tiger’s professed return to greatness and players such as Lee Westwood rejoining the PGA Tour, and both will have to deal with the severe pressure that comes with being number one and number two in the world. The difference between the two? McIlroy has won a major. The success or failure of Donald’s 2012 will be based entirely on whether he can disregard immense pressure and win one of the biggest four events in golf, as his talent dictates he must. As McIlroy said, “there will always be that question of ‘Is he the real No.1 because he’s not got a major?” Of all the prospective sub-plots for next season, Donald’s quest for a major will be the most stringently followed. If he claims a victory, there will be nothing to choose between him and McIlroy. If he doesn’t, expect McIlroy to become world number one. They will both win tour events, but their duel will be defined by major championship glory. Either way, barring the extremely unlikely yet not implausible return of Tiger Woods to world number one, a Brit will occupy that position at the end of 2012.