Heritage Notebook: Donald’s play shows the effect of swing changes

Luke Donald will lament being unable to capture his first victory since the 2012 Valspar Championship, but he leaves the 46th RBC Heritage presented by Boeing encouraged about the direction of his game.

Donald changed swing coaches about eight months ago, going to see Chuck Cook, a Texan who works with Jason Dufner, after 16 years with instructor Pat Goss, with whom he still works on putting and his short game.

Donald took a two-shot lead into the final round and closed with a 2-under 69 for a 10-under 274 total at Harbour Town Golf Links and finished a shot behind champion Matt Kuchar.

“I take a lot of positives away from this week,” said Donald, whose previous best finish this season was a tie for fourth at the Valspar Championship. “It was good to be in the mix again. I haven’t really been in the mix this year. I had a little bit of a chance in Tampa. But this is what you want to do is get back in that opportunity to win tournaments. This is obviously a step in the right direction.”

Donald’s inability to win essentially came down to two tee shots that he pulled or hooked left. He made a double bogey on the par-4 sixth after a gust of wind pushed him backward and he “kind of overcompensated,” and bogeyed the 10th after hooking his tee shot into water to the left of the fairway.

“It’s kind of a little bit of my old tendencies creeping in, and that’s going to take some time to get all of that out,” Donald said. “What I’m working on hopefully will help that. … But other than that it was a lot of solid golf this week to build off.”

The pressure of being in contention in the final round may have contributed to the two bad swings.

“It wasn’t as comfortable and relaxed atmosphere today for me as it was yesterday,” Donald said. “But it’s Sunday, and you are a little more conscious about some of the things you’re working on. That’s why we practice, to keep working through the subconscious and not having to think about things.”

He made the change largely to improve his chances in majors, and perform better under the pressure of contending on a Sunday.

“Taking nothing away from Pat, who took me all the way to No. 1, I just felt like at times under pressure, and especially in majors where the course setup is more extreme, I wanted to be able to get the ball in play a little bit more, hit fairways, hit greens when I needed to,” Donald said. “… I felt like with Chuck’s method I used the bigger muscles a little bit more.”

Generation gap

Is 20-year-old Jordan Spieth ready to be the face of the PGA Tour and golf for the next generation?

Without Tiger Woods for the entire week at the Masters, and without both Woods and Phil Mickelson present for the final two rounds at Augusta National, ratings were down significantly, according to Nielsen Media ratings.

Over the first two days of Masters telecasts, ESPN averaged a 1.6 U.S. household rating and 2.2 million viewers, both down significantly from last year’s averages of a 2.5 rating and 3.5 million viewers.

The average audience for the weekend coverage on CBS was 8.6 million viewers in 6.4 million homes, according to Nielsen ratings. That’s the worst weekend Masters ratings since 1993, when Bernhard Langer won by four strokes. That tournament was watched by 7.9 million viewers in 5.6 million homes.

It was the first time since 1994 that both Woods and Mickelson were missing from a Masters weekend. Woods didn’t play after having back surgery, and Mickelson missed the cut by a stroke. The absence of the game’s two icons and a lack of drama on the back nine likely contributed to the anemic ratings.

It appears golf needs someone to become a dominant player and carry the torch, and Spieth’s early success and run at a Masters title make him perhaps the top candidate.

Spieth, a level-headed Dallas native, has already risen to No. 9 in the Official World Golf Ranking in a little over a year as a professional and had a lead with 11 holes to play at Augusta National as he vied to become the youngest ever Masters winner. At the Heritage this week, Spieth closed with a 4-under 67 and tied for 12th.

He’s not all that concerned with the larger picture in golf just yet.

“I don’t put that on myself at all,” Spieth said. “I go week to week and don’t put any kind of extra expectation on myself, other than just standing on the tee box and trying to make a birdie on that hole, and that’s about it.

“That’s all it comes down to. Any off-the-course stuff is having fun and getting away from the game for the rest of the day.”

Palmetto state strong

South Carolina and the Hilton Head area had a strong showing in the 2014 Heritage.

Greenwood resident and Clemson graduate Ben Martin tied for third with a final-round 67 that included five birdies and a bogey.

North Augusta resident and former USC Aiken standout Scott Brown also closed with a 67 to tie for fifth for his third top-five this 2013-14 season, but first this calendar year.

Brian Harman, who grew up 30 minutes from Harbour Town in Savannah, Ga., and won the affiliated 2005 Players Amateur in Bluffton, closed with a 68 in front of many family and friends to tie for seventh.

Boiling Springs resident William McGirt shot a 66 Sunday to move into a tie for ninth from a tie for 34th through 54 holes. It’s his second top-10 of the season.

An early run

Pat Perez bogeyed his first hole Sunday and finished with a bogey and a par on the final two holes. What he did in between was pretty spectacular.

Perez made nine birdies in a 14-hole stretch to move from 5-over par to 4 under and threaten the course record.

He birdied holes 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13 and 15, and needed one par and two birdies on the final three holes to tie the course record of 61 set by David Frost in 1994. Perez bogeyed the 17th and matched champion Matt Kuchar with a 2014 tournament-best 7-under 64. Perez tied for 18th for his fourth top-20 finish in his last five starts at Harbour Town dating back to 2005.

The fiery Arizona native has one win in 13 years on tour and is having a decent season with his fourth career runner-up at the Farmers Insurance Open in January and a top-40 standing in 2013-14 FedExCup points.

Closing the door

Kuchar’s come-from-behind victory Sunday means 54-hole leaders have gone on to win in only 10 of the 22 PGA Tour events this season.

Pressure and the depth of the talent pool are certainly contributing factors to that statistic.

“It’s tough to win out here,” said Donald, who took a two-shot 69 lead into the final round and shot 69. “There are a lot of good players out there. Everyone’s making a run. You can’t really make mistakes and there’s more pressure on the guy out front. I think that’s why we admire Tiger [Woods] so much, because he is so good at closing it down when he has the lead.”

Donald has held at least a share of the 54-hole lead nine times on the PGA Tour, and on those occasions he has two wins, six runner-up finishes and a third. He has three come-from-behind wins.