LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Luke Donald figured he might have to win at Disney to have his best shot at capturing the PGA Tour money title. He took a good step Thursday in the Children’s Miracle Network Classic with a 6-under 66 for a seven-way share of the lead.
Donald is playing the opening two rounds with Webb Simpson, whose runner-up finish last week at Sea Island gave him a $363,029 lead in the money list. Simpson also played bogey-free on the easier Palm course for a 68.
“Would have loved to have made a couple more at the end,” Donald said of his six birdies. “I didn’t hit the ball great the last few holes. I think you want to capitalize on the slightly easier course, and six birdies and no bogeys was a great start. It wasn’t that easy out there. The wind was strong enough to make club selection a little tricky.”
The wind began blowing in the morning as a front came through, giving Disney surprisingly cool conditions.
Donald, who just returned from Europe, immediately put his name in the mix to stay near the top of the leaderboard throughout the morning. Simpson made a late surge and also was satisfied with his start.
“It’s a good start,” Simpson said. “That’s all you can ask for on day one. Looking forward to trying to improve tomorrow, just keep trying to climb the leaderboard.”
It’s a crowded leaderboard, typical of this season-ending tournament.
With so much attention at the top, it’s even more critical at the bottom as players try to finish in the top 125 on the money list to keep full status for next year. James Driscoll is at No. 125, and he was among those who opened with a 66 to tie for the lead.
The others were Arjun Atwal, Nathan Green, Scott Stallings, Derek Lamely and Gary Woodland, who won in Tampa earlier this year and is getting ready for a trip to China for the World Cup.
William McGirt, who knows a thing or two about playing his best when he has to, was in the large group at 67. McGirt narrowly got into the FedEx Cup playoffs, then advanced to the second stage. He now is No. 138 on the money list, and could challenge to get into the top 125 if he can stay in the top 10.
Donald is trying to become the first player to win the PGA Tour and European Tour money titles in the same year. He also is trying to become the first player since Tom Lehman in 1996 to win the PGA Tour money title in the final tournament.
The format is for two pros to play with two amateurs, and with Nos. 1 and 2 on the money list at Disney, it was natural for the tour to put Donald and Simpson in the same group. They had a few light-hearted moments.
“He asked when I was having my offseason,” Donald said. “I said, ‘Well, it was going to be this week. Thanks for playing the last two weeks.’ But yeah, just some light-hearted banter out there.”
Donald went ahead on the money list with a final birdie at the Tour Championship last month, but then Simpson lost in a playoff at the McGladrey Classic a week ago in his bid to win the money list, which comes with a five-year exemption.
Donald wasn’t planning to play Disney until then. The Englishman is missing out on a 10-year reunion at Northwestern, where he was an NCAA champion and loved the Chicago area so much that he now lives there for most of the year.
Northwestern plays Penn State at homecoming, and Donald said he was to be the honorary captain.
“Motivational speech, you know, that kind of stuff. Work out with ‘em every day,” Donald said sarcastically. “I think I get to be in the locker room and see what they do.”
Instead, he’s working at Disney, and trying to make it pay off in a big way.