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.”
Donald also kept alive his bid to become the first player to win the money title on the PGA Tour and European Tour in the same season. His lead in Europe is just over $1.8 million over Rory McIlroy with five tournaments remaining.
Leonard finished with eight pars for a 71. He already is exempt for next year, but kept alive his streak of never finishing out of the top 125 on the money list since joining the tour in 1994.
Tom Pernice Jr., a 52-year-old who refuses to give up on playing with guys half his age, closed with a 69 for a three-way tie for third, earning enough money to finish at No. 121 and earn back his PGA Tour card.
There were plenty of twists and turns at the bottom of the money list, as players were grinding to finish in the top 125 to have full status on tour next year.
Bobby Gates missed a 6-foot putt on the final hole but still appeared safe. Pernice only moved into the top 125 when Nick O’Hern bogeyed his last hole and fell out of the logjam at third place. On the other side of the Magnolia Course, D.J. Trahan knocked in a 22-foot birdie putt on his last hole at No. 9 — the second-toughest hole.
That ultimately enabled Trahan to finish at No. 125 on the money list by $1,431 over Gates.
“I don’t know what par would have done,” Trahan said. “I really, honestly don’t know what difference that would have made, but birdie certainly didn’t hurt me. So I’m thrilled that I made that putt.”
Donald, however, stole the show.
He only entered Disney after Simpson decided to play at Sea Island last week, and when Simpson was the runner-up to take the lead on the money list, Donald knew his best chance was to win.
He matched birdies with Simpson on the easy par-5 10th, and from there, Donald was in his own world. A wedge to 8 feet on the 11th. An 8-iron to 6 feet on the 12th. A lob wedge to 5 feet on the 13th.
The most meaningful shot came at the par-5 14th, where Donald had gone bogey and double bogey the previous two rounds, then pledged to reporters he would make birdie Sunday. He rolled in an 18-foot putt to get his revenge and take the lead.
“The putt on 15 was a bonus,” Donald said.
So was the reaction. For a man with so little emotion, Donald crouched, let out a yell, then slammed his fist toward the round when it dropped into the center of the cup. Donald suddenly had a two-shot lead, and no one behind him was making a move.
His wife, Diane, is expecting their second child in just over a week. She was watching from home, and posted on Twitter, “I don’t think this much jumping up and down is good for the baby!!!”
Kevin Chappell, the PGA Tour rookie who shared the 54-hole lead with Leonard, was tied for the lead when he missed a 3-foot birdie putt on the 10th and dropped a shot on the 11th with an approach into the bunker. Chappell closed with a 72 and was in the group at 274 that included Pernice and Sunghoon Kang, who birdied the last hole and moved into the top 125.
“I’m just dreaming right now,” Kang said.
It felt that way for Donald, too, who has done nothing but prove skeptics wrong all year.