Luke Donald and not Rory McIlroy will likely go to Augusta as world No 1 after the Englishman pulled off an impressive sudden-death victory at the Transitions Championship near Tampa.
“Well, I enjoyed it while it lasted,” McIlroy tweeted. “Congrats Luke, an impressive performance!”
Donald gouged seven-iron out of the right rough, saw it bounced on the fringe and scoot up to six feet from where he duly rolled home the birdie on the first extra hole to beat Korean Sang-Moon Bae and Americans Robert Garrigus and Jim Furyk.
Garrigus, who forced his way into extra time with closing 64, had a chance to make Donald putt to stay alive moments earlier but missed from seven feet.
The tournament will be remembered for Donald’s victory, which halted McIlroy’s reign as world No 1 at just a fortnight.
Not that McIlroy was that surprised.
“I’d love to keep myself here for a while, but yeah, I know that it’s inevitable that I’ll lose it at some point, that’s for sure,” the Ulsterman said at Doral. “I just hope that it’s a little further away. But, yeah, I don’t feel like I’m under any pressure to keep the No. 1, because that’s not what I play golf for. It’s not to keep the No. 1 ranking. It’s about winning tournaments, and if I win tournaments, the ranking will take care of itself.”
Winning tournaments is something that looks beyond Padraig Harrington right now after the Dubliner followed his opening 61 with rounds of 73, 72 and 71 to finish six shots outside the play-off in tied 20th.
Harrington started the final round four shots adrift of overnight leaders Furyk and Retief Goosen but, on a day of good scoring with Scott Piercy’s 62 showing that a low round was possible, the Irishman failed to get any momentum and only mustered two birdies to go with two bogeys in his round.
He birdied the third, holing a 17-footer, but bogeyed the 10th where he came up short in a greenside bunker with a wedge approach. Harrington bounced back with birdie on the Par 5 11th, sinking a 20 footer, but made another bogey on the 16th where he missed the green with his approach, chipped to 14 feet and missed the par putt.
After his opening round course record 61, Harrington – without a win on the US Tour since his 2008 US PGA championship triumph – failed to carry the shot-making or putting of that first round with him for the rest of the tournament.
In fact, he had more birdies in the first round (10) than he had the following three rounds (six) combined. That 61 was his only sub-par round.
He problably still felt marginally better walking away from Copperhead than Ernie Els, who missed two four-foot putts in his last three holes, finishing bogey-bogey to miss out on a play-off by one.
The man who hates to be called The Big Easy, closed with a 67 to finish tied fifth. But there is a bigger picture.
As Bob Harig reported for ESPN
Next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational is the last chance to get into the top 50, and he’s likely in need of a victory there, too, to crack the top 50. Short of that, his only way into the Masters would be a win at the Shell Houston Open.
“I was just trying to win a golf tournament,” Els said when asked if he was thinking about the Masters, which starts April 5. “Obviously, I can’t lie to you, I’ve been thinking about it constantly. But I just want to get the job done and win golf tournaments.”
Els said the missed putt on 16 affected him on both his tee shot at the 17th hole and on the short putt on 18. After failing to convert the birdie putt, there was a long wait on the 17th tee, a difficult 218-yard par-3 where Els pushed his 4-iron to the right and was fortunate to have a shot to the green.
He left himself a 25-footer for par, narrowly missed, then walked to the 18th tee tied for the lead. After a perfect drive, Els had just 160 left, but pulled his 7-iron approach just off the green. He hit a decent chip to 4 feet, then missed.
Afterward, Els was asked by a television interviewer [Steve Sands] if he had the confidence to make the putt. You could almost see the steam coming from the top of Els’ head as he answered by saying “I just pulled it a bit.” He then did a radio interview when he said, “I was just trying to jam it in there and I pulled it.”
This, obviously, was not the time to be asking questions, but Els consented, then signed autographs as he walked around the clubhouse and to the parking lot. There, the fire inside him having subsided somewhat, he lamented the missed opportunity.
“When you’re on the hot seat, people are going to criticize you,” he said. “When you hit a good putt and it misses, you’re still going to get criticized, you know? So that’s the position I’m in. If I hit a good putt, feel it’s a good putt and it doesn’t go in … doesn’t matter what I say.
“I just feel like I’m in a difficult position. Have to defend myself all the time. It kind of came to a boiling point there, almost. It was a bit of an odd question.”
Els fell from 79th to 118th in the stats for putts holed from 3-5 feet following Sunday’s mishaps.
Harrington has now missed 12 of the 58 putts from 3-5 feet he has faced this year and slipped from 150th to 164th for the same category.
While McIlroy is down one place to second in the world, Harrington is down one to 91st. His 61 came just days ago yet it already seems like an age has passed.