Luke Donald poised to take next step

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- He doesn't date a tennis star. He doesn't go Bubba long. He doesn't dress like a creamsicle.

If Luke Donald were a carpet, he'd be Berber -- safe, dependable, neutral. He ranks last on tour in hearing "You da man!" Crowd control is never an issue when Donald tees it up.

What a shame. Had things shaken out slightly different Sunday at The Players Championship, Donald would have traded places -- again -- with Rory McIlroy as the world's No. 1 ranked player.

Instead, Donald just missed moving back into the top spot. He went 36-30 in the final round for a 6-under-par 66 to finish in sixth place. He needed a solo fourth or higher to reclaim the top ranking.

McIlroy is No. 1, but Donald is No. 1.1. Yet, Rors is the one who gets the 10-deep crowds. The TV cameras love him. He and girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, ranked eighth in women's tennis, are sports' favorite dating couple.

Donald? Wife Diane is a sweetheart, but when's the last time she played at Wimbledon? And nobody is selling Luke wigs like they are with McIlroy and his curls.

Even in his native England, Donald isn't adored. Admired, yes. Beloved? Not yet.

There is something about his game and his personality that hasn't completely connected with the casual golf follower, especially in this country. Maybe it's the English thing. Maybe it's the non-schtick thing. Donald is as understated as a cup of tea, no sugar.

But Donald is worth the effort. You don't win the 2011 money title on both the tours, U.S. and European, by accident. You don't kick American butt in Ryder Cups unless you can deal with pressure. You don't put together 2½ years of wins and top-10 finishes unless you can put the biscuit in the basket.

So why doesn't he get the respect he deserves?

"He does from all the players," said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. "The feeling when Rory won at Honda [two months ago] was the collective hurray from the world's media that, 'Wow, thank goodness Rory's No. 1 now.' That's what it felt like, which is an absurd disrespect, really. No one, apart from maybe Tiger [Woods] and Vijay [Singh], has had a better two-year period than he's had.

"Rory plays his best. Tiger plays his best. Phil [Mickelson] plays his best. It's like a toss-up who's the best when everybody is playing their best. But the reality is that guy [Donald] has been the best for the last 18 months, at least."

True. But Woods, Singh and even McIlroy have something that Donald doesn't: a major.

Donald has a career-high T-3 finish at the Masters (2005), a T-12 at the U.S. Open (2006), a T-5 at the Open Championship (2009) and a T-3 at the PGA Championship (2006). There are check marks next to nearly every box on his golf résumé except the one that matters most.

"I've obviously experienced being at No. 1," he said. "It's nice. I like to be No. 1. There's no fluke in getting to No. 1. It's two years of hard work and being consistent.

"But obviously my career, I'm still searching to win majors and that's much more important."

Meanwhile, McIlroy has that 2011 U.S. Open win. And according to the Vegas smart guys, McIlroy (and Woods) are 8/1 favorites to win the Open at Olympic Club in mid-June. Donald is 20/1.

Donald knows he needs to win a major to win over the doubters. Those 45 weeks as world No. 1 were a bonus -- and there will likely be more -- but any great player is measured and judged by those four precious majors.

"That's fair over a career," Ogilvy said. "If he plays like he has the last 18 months over the next 10 years and doesn't win a major, that's a fair thing to focus on. … If you get to the end of his career with no major, then it's a big asterisk. But in the middle of it, I think you give him [a break]."

If Donald plays the way he has played during the past 18 months, Ogilvy said he would be surprised if there wasn't a major championship in Donald's 2012-13 future. It's a no-brainer prediction.

Donald has a short game that's prettier than a Maui sunset. He has ranked in the top 10 in strokes gained-putting, scrambling, scoring average and top-10 finishes. But he's T-178th in driving distance, which doesn't exactly promote goose bumps. It also can be a problem during the majors -- but not necessarily next month at Olympic Club, which will measure a manageable 7,170 yards.

Of course, there's nothing Donald can do to add Tabasco sauce to his image. He's a visor guy, not a flat-brimmed, oversized cap guy. He'll take some chances on his golf attire, but the all-fluorescent orange, Rickie Fowler thing isn't going to happen. He doesn't wear Sunday red like Woods.

But he does win and contend. A lot.

That Sunday 66 was second-best score of the final round. So in the last two months, he has a T-6 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, a playoff win at the Transitions Championship, a third-place finish at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and now this sixth spot at The Players.

But still no major.

I'm with Ogilvy. It will happen. You can't be this good for this long without one day walking away with a green jacket, an Open trophy, a Claret Jug or a Wanamaker Trophy.

"I think the begrudging respect out of the media center is actually building," Ogilvy said. "I think they want to, but they're starting to have to."

That's not exactly true. Donald has long had the respect of the media -- and golf fans. But if Donald wants more, he'll need one of the Big Four.

And nobody knows it more than Donald.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.