Under the greatest pressure, Luke Donald delivered his finest performance.
Donald felt his only chance to capture the PGA Tour money title — and state a clear case as player of the year — was to win at Disney in the final tournament of the year.
“It was do or die,” Donald said.
That’s what made his victory Sunday in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic his most gratifying win of the year. Five shots behind going into the final round, and still four shots out of the lead with nine holes to play, Donald left little doubt who was No. 1 — in the world ranking, and now on the PGA Tour.
Donald ran off six straight birdies to blow past Webb Simpson on the leaderboard and on the money list, closing with an 8-under 64 for a two-shot victory over Justin Leonard that makes him a clear favorite for PGA Tour player of the year.
“I told you guys on Wednesday that the goal was to win. Nothing was really going to be good enough other than that,” Donald said. “I think this is probably one of the most satisfying wins of my career just because of that.
“It’s just knowing that I had to do it, and being able to do it ... it’s very, very special.”
Not only was Donald four shots out of the lead at the turn, he was two shots behind Simpson, who had a $363,029 lead on the money list. His caddie for the week, Gareth Lord, had sent Donald a text Saturday night to say that “it’s not over yet.”
Donald’s timing could not have been better. He holed four straight birdie putts inside 8 feet, took the lead with an 18-foot birdie on the par-5 14th hole, then sealed his stunning rally with a 45-foot birdie on the 15th hole.
“We gave ourselves a chance,” said Simpson, who shot 69 and tied for sixth. “The fact is, playing against the best player in the world, he’s going to do something great like that most of the time, and he did. Made six birdies in a row. Tough to compete against.”
Donald won for the second time this year on tour, as many as anyone else. He also won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest adjusted scoring average. He finished in the top 10 in 74 percent of his starts.
And now, he has his first PGA Tour money title with $6.68 million — along with a seven-figure bonus from sponsor Ralph Lauren.
The PGA Tour player of the year award is a vote of the players, and ballots go out next week. Simpson had been considered a front-runner going into the week, mainly because he was leading the money list.
Donald, who finished at 17-under 271 and earned $846,000, was asked to make a case for someone other than him.
“Not sure I could at the moment,” he said. “I think I’ve answered everyone’s questions. Coming into this week, I felt like Webb was probably the favorite, based on he was ahead of me on the money list and he was ahead of me in wins this year. Obviously, I’ve drawn level on wins and I’ve gotten ahead on money.
“Feels like I’ve answered all the questions thrown at me.”
Simpson wasn’t quite sure.
“I don’t know yet,” Simpson said, who won twice and was No. 2 on the money list and the FedEx Cup. “I think I’ve played great. Luke has played great. Couple other guys have played well. Still probably up in the air a little bit. But I’m sure I’ll vote for myself.”