Donald wins and returns to No. 1
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By DOUG FERGUSON
PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) One great round. One solid swing out of the rough. One clutch birdie putt.
That's what Luke Donald needed to win the Transitions Championship in a playoff and get back to No. 1 in the world.
Donald was starting to feel overlooked in the two weeks since Rory McIlroy replaced him atop the world ranking, and he even allowed a few doubts about his game to creep into his head.
That changed on a steamy Sunday at Innisbrook, where Donald closed with a 5-under 66 and won a four-man playoff on the first extra hole with a 7-iron out of the rough to 6 feet below the cup for birdie to beat Jim Furyk, Robert Garrigus and Bae Sang-Moon.
"I think people ... thought that my last year was maybe a little bit more of a - not a fluke, but I don't think many people thought I could do that all over again this year," Donald said. "Hopefully, I can prove them wrong."
With his fifth win in his last 31 starts around the world, Donald went back to No. 1 and will stay there until he gets to Augusta National and tries to capture his first major championship.
McIlroy wasted no time sending his congratulations through Twitter.
"Well I enjoyed it while it lasted! Congrats (at)LukeDonald! Impressive performance!" he tweeted.
He followed with another tweet that at least he won't have to change his profile picture, taken late last year with McIlroy flashing a No. 2 sign alongside his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
"I'm sure he got a taste of the view and I'm sure he'll want more of it. He's a great player," Donald said. "I think golf is in a good spot right now. There's a lot of excitement going on."
The only fluke was how Donald returned to No. 1 - by winning a playoff, just like he did at Wentworth last May when he first rose to the top of the world ranking.
With so many possibilities in this wild final round, only the best golf was going to get rewarded.
Garrigus birdied the last two holes for a 64 and was the first to finish on 13-under 271, which turned out to be enough for the playoff. Bae, the South Korean with the fluid swing, made a 6-foot par putt on the final hole for a 68. Furyk had a 69 and was the last one to join the four-man playoff.
Missing from the group was Ernie Els, whose bogey-bogey finish cost him a chance to win - and maybe a trip to the Masters.
Els was leading at 14-under par when he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole, missed the green badly on the par-3 17th for a bogey, then pulled a 4-foot par putt on the 18th hole for a 67 to finish one shot out of the playoff.
The Big Easy could have secured a Masters invitation by winning. Because he tied for fifth, he only moved to No. 62 in the world. Bay Hill does not have as strong of a field, meaning Els might have to win next week or the Houston Open to get back to Augusta National.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "I'm pretty hot now, and it's difficult to talk with a straight head here. If I take stock, I think I'm playing good golf, and I've got to head into the next couple of weeks trying to get a win."
Donald felt the jangled nerves of trying to win, only it was different from Wentworth.
This was more about the trophy, not the ranking.
He started the final round three shots out of the lead, then swiftly moved into position with four birdies in a seven-hole stretch around the turn, showing off his polished iron play on a couple of those birdies.
In the final hour, there was a six-way tie for the lead until two players dropped out - Els with his bogey on the 18th, and Ken Duke with a bogey on the 17th when he rimmed out a 5-foot putt.
Donald had a heavy lie in the right rough, up the hill to a pin tucked over the bunker. He went with a 7-iron from 157 yards - it was playing closer to 170 yards with the elevation change - and the shot narrowly cleared the bunker and settled 6 feet below the cup. It was a remarkable shot, especially in a four-man playoff. That's what No. 1 players do.
"That shot just came out perfectly," Donald said. "You never quite know out of the rough. Sometimes it comes out soft and sometimes it comes out a little hot. That one, just when it was in the air, looked good to me."
Furyk caught an awkward lie short of the fairway bunker and hit 8-iron 40 feet past the hole. Bae, who closed with eight strong pars, missed his 18-foot birdie attempt on the low side. Garrigus hit a big drive and had a wedge to the green. It covered the flag and spun back about 7 feet away. Using a long putter to help steady himself in such pressure situations, he pulled the putt.
"Made a lot of birdies today and didn't happen," Garrigus said. "Was a lot of fun, though."
That set the stage for Donald, who delivered a right uppercut when the putt curled into the side of the cup.
"I was a lot more nervous the first time," Donald said of getting to No. 1. "That certainly wasn't my focus. I was just focused on trying to win the tournament, and it worked out."
Donald and McIlroy figure to see each other next week in Palm Beach County for practice. Neither is playing until the Masters, assuring that Donald will go to Augusta National as No. 1 in the world.
Scott Piercy, who finished his 62 before the leaders teed off, joined Els (67), Ken Duke (68) and Jeff Overton (66) in a tie for fifth. Overton and Piercy had birdie chances on the 18th, neither knowing it would be enough for a playoff. Duke missed a 5-foot par putt on the 17th hole to fall out of a six-way share of the lead.
Retief Goosen showed on the opening hole that it was a minor miracle he was even tied for the lead. His back was in such pain that he could barely finish his swing. He hit his drive into the trees, took five shots to reach the green and made double bogey, a four-shot swing when Furyk holed a bunker shot for eagle.
Goosen was among the eight players atop the leaderboard at some point, though not for long. With bogeys on the last two holes, he closed with a 75. Goosen now goes to Virginia for a protein injection for his back. He could have qualified for the Masters by finishing among the top eight, and now gets an extended break.
Updated March 18, 2012