Jeff Shain

Same old script for Luke Donald, chased down again in RBC Heritage’s final round

Luke Donald looks through the flying sand after hitting out of the greenside bunker on No. 18 during the final round of the 48th annual RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament on Sunday, April 17, 2016 at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Donald, who led after three rounds, ended up in a tie for second place with Russell Knox, two strokes behind tournament champion Branden Grace.
Luke Donald looks through the flying sand after hitting out of the greenside bunker on No. 18 during the final round of the 48th annual RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing golf tournament on Sunday, April 17, 2016 at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C. Donald, who led after three rounds, ended up in a tie for second place with Russell Knox, two strokes behind tournament champion Branden Grace. jkarr@islandpacket.com

Luke Donald wore a bemused smile as he walked off Harbour Town’s 18th green, an expression that never left as he emerged from the scoring trailer and faced the questions about a Sunday that never really got out of second gear.

Chased down. Again.

Hey, there’s always next year. Perhaps the seventh time will be a charm — though the former world No. 1 was half-seriously contemplating a change of strategy in his next pursuit of that elusive tartan jacket.

“I think I’ve got to put myself three or four (shots) behind going to Sunday,” Donald said. “Leading doesn’t seem to be working out for me.”

No, it doesn’t. Sunday marked the third time in six years that the English pro has taken the lead into the final round of the RBC Heritage. And the third time he’d been left empty-handed.

You know what they say about the definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But wouldn’t any golfer want to have a cushion, however small, with 18 holes to play?

Golf, by its nature, doesn’t exactly lend itself to drafting as you’d see in NASCAR or the Tour de France. Though by now you really couldn’t blame Donald if he ever contemplated nudging one of his pursuers into some wall by the Harbour Town patio.

In 2011, Brandt Snedeker made up a six-shot deficit with a Sunday 64, taking Donald to a playoff and winning on the third extra hole. Three years later, Matt Kuchar capped his own 64 with a bunker holeout on the 18th, pipping Donald without the courtesy of a playoff.

If anything, Sunday’s two-shot loss to Branden Grace might have been the least painful. The South African made up a three-shot deficit with a 66, zooming past stuck-in-idle Donald with back-to-back birdies midway through the back nine to take much of the drama out of it.

“I was expecting someone to play well,” Donald said. “And it was a great round from Branden.”

Don’t underplay Grace in all this. Ranked 14th in the world, that was actually second-highest in the field but lost amid the storylines of No. 1 Jason Day coming to town, Bryson DeChambeau’s pro debut and even Jason Bohn’s return from a heart attack.

But Grace already had won 10 times overseas, including the Qatar Masters in February, and had a pair of top-five finishes in majors last year. It was a matter of time before he won on U.S. shores.

Donald has won before, too — five times on the PGA Tour and 11 overseas. You don’t spend 56 weeks at world No. 1 without winning a few. Get him to Harbour Town, though, and “Island Time” on a Sunday has too often meant well-paid disappointment.

Consider that Sunday’s result took Donald over the $3 million mark in career RBC Heritage earnings, on the strength of four runner-up finishes and a pair of thirds.

Geez, that at least ought to be worth a pair of plaid trousers. No one, short of five-time winner Davis Love III, has played more consistently well at Harbour Town. And even that might be up for debate.

Sundays, though, have been a mystery.

Just once has Donald recorded better than a 69 during the final round at Harbour Town, a run of futility that continued with Sunday’s even-par 71. One day earlier, he talked about needing to keep the pedal down in the heat of Sunday, but it never materialized.

Six consecutive pars allowed Grace to close the gap, and Donald never got any momentum going. A long birdie at No. 7 pushed him back in front at 8-under, but he gave it back when he drove into a pond at the par-4 eighth.

Donald birdied again at the short par-4 ninth, striping a wedge within 3 feet of the flagstick in his best shot of the day. But again, any good vibes were doused when his approach shot at No. 10 drifted into a greenside bunker for another bogey.

“That was a little bit of a momentum killer,” Donald said.

Two groups ahead, Grace rolled home a 10-foot birdie at No. 12 and again at No. 13. That took him to 10-under, and all Donald could manage was to par his way in.

“I had some chances,” he said. “I had a good chance on (No.) 11, on 13, on 15. Even 16 an 17 were outside chances. But it just wasn’t meant to be.”

To be honest, there were plenty of positives for Donald to take away from Harbour Town. Before his arrival, his best PGA Tour finish this season was a share of 22nd in Tampa. That follows a down year in which he was eliminated from the FedExCup playoffs after just two events.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” he said. “I’m really positive about my game going forward. It was positive about the way I handled it today. I didn’t quite get it done, but I’m excited about playing next week.”

He’ll certainly head to San Antonio on an upswing. As for Harbour Town, well ...

Maybe next year.

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