CASARES, Spain -- After stumbling over the final hurdle at the World Match Play Championship, Northwestern alum Luke Donald may have given more ammunition to critics who claim he still lacks that ruthless edge when it matters most.
His breakthrough victory at the Accenture Match Play in Arizona in February suggested a cure had been found to "Luke Donald Disease" -- a condition cruelly invented by an American journalist in 2009 to describe the Englishman's inability to close out a big tournament.
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Critics were briefly silenced, but they may return with renewed vigor after his latest setback, a 2-and-1 loss to Ian Poulter in the World Match Play final just when the No. 1 spot in the world ranking was there to be taken.
Donald produced some majestic performances throughout the week at the Finca Cortesin course, breezing through the group stage and reaching the final with an uncompromising 5-and-3 thrashing of third-ranked Martin Kaymer early Sunday.
"He played like a machine," said a bewildered Kaymer. "It was like a PlayStation, it was unbelievable. It felt impossible for me."
Donald was the heavy favorite to make a defiant statement in the final a few hours later, defeating Ian Poulter to take over as No. 1 for the first time.
But he left his short game and putting in the locker room, losing 2 and 1 in a curiously error-strewn display that didn't corrolate with what he had produced before in Andalusia. With the No. 1 ranking tantalizingly close, had Donald been struck by an attack of the jitters?
"I didn't execute my shots when I needed to and that's disappointing," said Donald, who five hours earlier didn't put a foot wrong against Kaymer. "I left too many shots out there."
It was Tiger Woods, addressing the media on the eve of the U.S. Open in Pinehurst in 2005, who famously talked of Donald as a player who "plods along."
That description can surely now be consigned to history. True, Donald can be methodical and slow-paced in his approach, but 14 straight match-play victories, including singles and doubles matches in the Ryder Cup, before his defeat to Poulter is no record for a mere plodder. Neither is 13 top-10 finishes in 14 events before traveling to Spain for the World Match Play.
However hard it will be, Donald will endeavor to put this setback behind him and make a renewed bid for Lee Westwood's No. 1 spot next week at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, England.
"I'm not too concerned with the rankings," Donald said. "That kind of takes care of itself but I'll keep knocking on the door and we'll give it another try next week.
"Not getting the victory was the disappointing thing. I think the world ranking will come if I keep playing the way I am playing."
With match play appearing to be his strongest suit, he will hope he hasn't missed his best opportunity.
Regardless of all his top-10 finishes in 2011, he has won only one stroke-play title in five years -- the 2010 Madrid Masters.
His consistency in all departments of the game and his ability to salvage something from seemingly perilous situations makes him ideally suited to match play, but he came up against someone molded in his own image: Poulter.
"He's gritty, he gets the job done," Donald said of his Ryder Cup teammate. "He's not an easy opponent to play and he did what he needed to do."
Looking back on how well he played in Spain, Donald will be wondering how he didn't come away with the No. 1 ranking and unprecedented back-to-back titles in the world's two high-profile match-play tournaments.
It remains to be seen if the loss to Poulter sows any seeds of doubt in Donald's psyche just at the time he looked ready to shut his critics up once and for all.