For Second Straight Year, Donald Goes Extra Mile to Qualify

Luke Donald walks to the 12th green during his final U.S. Open practice round on Wednesday. Donald has earned a spot in the field the last two years via sectional qualifying.
Luke Donald walks to the 12th green during his final U.S. Open practice round on Wednesday. Donald has earned a spot in the field the last two years via sectional qualifying.  (USGA/Michael Cohen)

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OAKMONT, Pa. – As he walked off the second green at Wedgewood Golf & Country Club in Powell, Ohio, last Tuesday morning, Luke Donald grinned and said with detectable facetiousness, “Well, that was easy.”

Donald had just watched Daniel Summerhays miss a 5-foot par putt on the second hole of a 6-for-5 playoff, which enabled Donald to advance for the second year in a row to the U.S. Open via sectional qualifying. The qualifier had been extended to a second day due to inclement weather, and Donald, who had stayed alive with a 6-foot par putt on the first extra hole, could breathe a sigh of relief when he didn’t have to continue playing, his par good enough for a spot.

“You wouldn’t think it’d be the case,” said the former No. 1 player in the world, “but I was actually extremely nervous standing over that putt back at [the first playoff hole]. I really wanted to play in the U.S. Open. I didn’t want to miss two majors in a row.”

No. 79 in the world, Donald missed the Masters Tournament for the first time since 2004. After competing in the Memorial Tournament, where he finished 68th, the native of Hempstead, England, shot 68-69-137 to sneak into the sectional playoff picture. Two pars earned a return trip to Oakmont, where he missed the cut in 2007.

“I’ll take it,” Donald said after about 5 hours of sleep following his 36 holes on Monday. “I’ve had to qualify for the last two Opens, which is something you don’t really want to have to do, but if you want to play in the U.S. Open, it’s what you have to do. It feels really good to be going back again.”

Donald, 38, will make his 13th U.S. Open start, with his best finish T-8 in 2013 at Merion, where he was never outside the top 10 all week. He has a bit of a score to settle at Oakmont.

“I was playing with [eventual champion Angel] Cabrera, and on Friday we were finishing at the ninth hole, that monster par 4 up the hill,” Donald recalled. “He hits a driver and a sand wedge to about 2-3 feet. I hit a 4-iron in there to about 25 feet. I made par. He made birdie and knocked me out of the 10-shot rule.”

Donald, who now lives in Jupiter, Fla., struggled for much of last year and contemplated quitting the game – albeit briefly – during the winter. A five-time PGA Tour winner, he has felt rejuvenated in 2016 and posted a second-place finish in the RBC Heritage the week after the Masters.

“It’s the same thing a lot of guys face,” he explained. “When you’re playing well, you don’t give it a thought. You just go play. But when things are going bad you don’t think you’re ever going to get out of it. You get pretty low and beat up. It takes a lot to snap out of it.

“Last year, I was a different golfer, different mentally more than anything,” Donald added. “I wasn’t that sure about my game, lost a bit of confidence in it. Now, I step up onto the first tee and feel pretty good about my chances and where my game is. I’ve come a long way since last year.”

And he went the extra mile to play in the U.S. Open.

“I’ve had some good weeks this year, but being in majors helps, and you feel like if you’re a good player then that’s where you belong,” he said. “I think Oakmont is a fantastic golf course. It’s hard but fair, and it’s not overly long, so I think if I keep improving the way I have, then I should have a decent chance.”

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who contributes frequently to USGA websites.