HONOLULU — A first-round one-under 69 on Thursday morning at Waialae Country Club was a rousing success for former World No. 1 Luke Donald in the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Then again, not hurting himself when he brushes his teeth is a rousing success.
Donald completed his first round on the PGA Tour in nine months and tried to not sound too relieved as he continued his comeback from a herniated disc in his back. The Englishman made his return to competitive golf in October at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on the European Tour in St. Andrews, Scotland, and also played the next week in the British Masters, missing the cut in both.
His entry in the Sony Open, where he has played 10 times previously—with a best finish of T-2 in 2007—was his first in the U.S. since a second-round 67 in the RBC Heritage last April in Hilton Head, S.C.
“Overall, generally pleased with that round. A few things to tidy up, but nothing to worry about,” Donald said with alacrity after making two birdies, one bogey and no groans while swinging a club.
Donald, who last won on the PGA Tour in 2012 at the Transitions Championship near Tampa, said he would not have returned to competitive golf were he guarding against hurting his back while making a swing. His rehab stint not only was aggressive, but is continuing and will require diligence.
Also, he’s aware that he must make careful choices away from the golf course.
“I have to be diligent, even on everyday postural stuff, like how I clean my teeth,” he said, bending over slightly to demonstrate. “There’s no picking up kids or lots of trampolining. Yeah, lots of life changes. I have to be a little bit careful. If I keep stressing the back into non-safe positions … the whole point is to keep it neutral and desensitize that area as much as possible to create resistance and resiliency.
“I’m not saying my back feels 100 percent normal, because there’s always going to be a little something there, but you have to be managing it a lot.”
To further ensure he is doing everything possible to stay healthy, Donald said he’ll have 3-D imaging made of his golf swing next week, “just to see how I’m progressing with slightly different movements to take pressure off the area.”
So he’s incorporating a bit of a different motion. That’s not easy when also knocking off considerable amounts of rust.
The time Donald had away from the game gave him a chance to get refreshed mentally without being absent too long so that he struggled to get back into a competitive frame of mind. That said, it cost him even more places on the Official World Golf Ranking; he enters the week ranked 625th.
Waialae CC was playing firm, even early Thursday, but he managed his game well. He looked pleased. He has missed competing. The game hasn't treated him as well in recent years, but he still loves to play. He still enjoys the challenges.
“Yeah, it takes a little time to sort of feel your way into it,” he said. “But I’ve got plenty of experience, have had plenty of rounds here, too, so I know what to expect. But it’s different than playing and practicing at home. It’s a bit different feeling, a little bit of anxiety there, but it was pretty comfortable out there.”
The 5-foot-9 Donald never was a long hitter but relied upon solid iron play and a splendid short game in winning 15 times world-wide and playing on four Ryder Cup teams for Europe. At 41, he’ll need those tools more than ever if he ever hopes to break through and win a major title—or even a regular event on the PGA Tour or European Tour.
His last win anywhere was the 2013 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan, more than five years ago. Just last year Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were able to end winless droughts of about that duration—though Woods sat out for two years with his own back issues that required several surgeries.
“I still feel like my good golf is good enough to be a top player, a top-50 player for sure,” Donald said. “I’d love to, with all the work I’ve put in, see a little benefit out of it. Maybe be a bit more consistent again like I was in my prime and have some chances to win and obviously get back in the winner’s circle. Those are some goals of mine, and the drive and the determination are still there.”
He still has big goals. Even as he’s mindful of managing the little goals, too.