Luke Donald's fast start helps title chase

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Pairing the leading money winners in the same group for the first two rounds adds a good bit of intrigue to the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, where the PGA Tour money title will be decided this weekend.

But there's more to it than Luke Donald beating Webb Simpson, or vice versa, at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Simpson holds a $363,029 advantage over Donald, which means their duel for two days is somewhat overstated.

"Not only do I have to beat Webb, I have to beat the rest of the field,'' Donald said. "I have to keep my eye on everyone.''

Donald did his part Thursday during the opening round on the easier Palm course at Disney, where he shot a 6-under-par 66 to tie for the lead.

But if he is to lead the money list and maintain his dream of winning the money title on both the PGA and European tours, he needs some help from Simpson.

And the two-time winner in 2011, who is coming off a playoff loss on Sunday at the McGladrey Classic, shot 68 to stay close.

Both players will move to Disney's Magnolia course on Friday, and after the 36-hole cut is made, all competitors play the Magnolia on the weekend.

Donald, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, added this tournament a week ago in response to Simpson trying to overtake him on the money list.

It meant blowing off homecoming this weekend at Northwestern, where the Englishman attended college and graduated from 10 years ago. He was set to be the honorary captain at the football game against Penn State but is instead at the Magic Kingdom, toiling in another tournament.

"I'm here obviously to win the money title, and I'm probably going to need to win to do that,'' Donald said. "Third place isn't going to get it done.''

Second place might, but it all depends on what Simpson accomplishes.

The two joked about it a bit during the first round, Simpson needling Donald about playing this week after such a busy stretch of golf that had seen him play seven of the past 10 weeks around the world.

"He asked when I was having my offseason, and I said, 'Well, it was going to be this week. Thanks for playing the last two weeks,''' Donald said. "Just some lighthearted banter out there.''

The two produced some nice golf, too, as there was not a bogey between them (each played with an amateur in the pro-am format) and a total of 10 birdies.

Donald had moved to the top of the money list last month at the Tour Championship and figured that he might have clinched it there as he set out to play two events on the European Tour.

But Simpson decided to add last week's McGladrey Classic, where a tie for 15th or better would be enough to pass Donald. Simpson nearly won the tournament, losing in a playoff and vaulting past Donald and setting up this week's showdown -- one that Simpson can make nonexistent with a good week.

Donald can finish no worse than a two-way tie for second to have any chance of passing Simpson, and even if he does, Simpson could still claim the title by finishing in a four-way tie for 21st or better.

Only one time since 1990 has the money leader changed in the final week of the season, and that came in 1996 at the Tour Championship, where Tom Lehman won the tournament and passed Phil Mickelson.

If Donald pulls it off, he's in good shape to become the first player to officially win money titles on the PGA and European tours in the same season. He has about a 1.3 million euro lead on the European Tour, with several big-money events still to come.

Simpson has pointed to the five-year exemption that comes with the money title, along with the honor, for making the late-season push. He watched Donald get off to a fast start Thursday before closing the gap.

"When a guy is No. 1 in the world, you expect him to play well,'' Simpson said. "It almost makes it easier not to get caught up in what he's doing, because you expect him to go out and make a lot of birdies and be there Sunday.''

There are a few scenarios that are in play, but Donald is not doing the math.

"Every time I tee it up, I'm trying to win the event,'' said Donald, who has won three times around the world this year. "I think these courses lend themselves to being a little bit more aggressive. I feel like I make enough birdies out there anyways for how I approach the game, and it won't be too different. I don't see it as a different mindset.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.