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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Luke Donald, World Player of 2011

At least he is in my book. His third-place finish at Dubai earlier today locked it up for me.

Luke wins the Race to Dubai

I've heard a lot of talk this week -- Nick Faldo for one was quite vocal about it -- who said Rory should get this honor, essentially because he won a major and Luke did not. I agree that majors are important, but I note that two main groups argue that "majors trump everything." With a few exceptions, they are either Tour players with majors (Faldo has six, you know) or media types with no majors at all who spend a lot of time with those players. I think their logic is flawed.

Here's the way I see it: There was a time when majors were more important than they are now. Majors were virtually the only time when players from around the world competed against each other. If you won a major, that was the only time you could say you had truly beaten ALL of the world's best.

Not so anymore. We argue from time-to-time whether there'a a "world tour" or not, but we now see ten tournaments a year where most of the big names show up. These are the four majors, the four WGCs, the TPC, and the BMW. In fact, you could argue that the majors aren't even the best of these fields, since the TPC regularly has 95 or more of the Top 100 in the world rankings. (Bear in mind that the Masters rarely even has that many players in total, and a large percentage of those are from outside the Top 100. I'm not backtracking on what I said about the relative uselessness of the world rankings. However, at this time that's our only measure of field strength, so that's what we have to use when comparing tournaments.)

While some of these are not recognized as "official" tournaments by the PGA Tour, they're all recognized by the European Tour. Rory couldn't beat Luke for PGA POY since he wasn't a member but, had he been, Rory had only won the US Open while Luke won the Accenture WGC and the Disney (not a top field in that last one, but a top performance because he had to win), plus the Money Title, both scoring titles, and has held the #1 spot in the OWGR for seven months and counting.

So is Rory's performance on the European Tour strong enough to grab World POY for 2011? In a word, no.

Rory's US Open counts on the ET, so he gets credit for 2 wins -- the major and the UBS Hong Kong Open. That's not a bad year.

But Luke's WGC also counts on the ET, along with the BMW PGA Championship and the Barclays Scottish Open, for three ET wins. The WGC and the BMW are in that ten-event "world tour" group I mentioned, and I should point out that Luke beat the reigning world #1 in both events, gaining the #1 position himself at the BMW. (In fairness, Rory beat #1 Luke at the US Open... but it still wasn't enough for him to take #1 away from Luke.) Add that second money title, and it's pretty much a slam dunk for Donald.

Ironically, the best measure we have of who played best is probably still the OWGR because they award points for each tournament a player is in. In 2011 Luke gained 507.45 points versus Rory's 353.83 points. I'm cautious with this since it doesn't tell us how many tournaments they needed to gain these points, and I know Luke played more. However, Luke had to fulfill obligations to two tours while Rory didn't, and over the 2-year period the OWGR covers, Luke has played only 4 more events (53 vs 49) yet Luke's average is two points higher than Rory's. That can only be interpreted as a higher level of play overall by Luke Donald.

If Rory had won Dubai, I admit I would have reconsidered this decision, primarily because Rory needed to win both Hong Kong and Dubai events just to have a chance at money title. Had he come through, even without winning the money title (that depended on how Luke played), I would have given him even more credit than we give Luke for the Disney performance. And while it's true that Rory was sick at Dubai, Luke was still rusty after a month of not playing while he dealt with the birth of his daughter and death of his dad. The fact is, had Luke played a decent first round, he might have won Dubai straight out.

In short, Luke Donald did everything possible in 2011 except win a major. And on that I agree with Julian Tutt -- it probably won't be long before he does that as well. In just one year. Luke Donald has completely changed his image by becoming one of the toughest players in modern golf.

It's only fitting to proclaim Luke Donald as the World Player of the Year for 2011. Congrats, Luke!

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