Luke Donald in prime position

9/25/2010 - Golf Luke Donald

ATLANTA -- There is a lot at stake Sunday, a lot to contemplate for Luke Donald both during the final round of the Tour Championship and the ensuing trip overseas for the Ryder Cup.

A wild-card pick of European captain Colin Montgomerie, Donald has been talking for weeks about being chosen for what appears to be a loaded squad, while a couple of other deserving Englishmen -- Paul Casey and Justin Rose -- were passed over.

While the Donald pick was not nearly as controversial as, say, Padraig Harrington, it could certainly be argued that the former Northwestern star could have been left at home, too.

Because upon closer inspection, Donald's performance this year, although solid, has been far short of spectacular.

Donald has not won on the PGA Tour in four years, and has posted just two career victories on the American circuit.

For a player ranked ninth in the world, there is a glaring lack of hardware on Donald's mantle.

"I certainly feel a certain amount of urgency," he said. "I feel like I'm good enough, I work hard enough to win out here, I just haven't got it done the last few years. There's no one more motivated than myself to try and rectify that."

Donald, 32, has given himself an opportunity to do so on the last day of the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Despite shooting over-par Saturday at sun-splashed East Lake Golf Club, Donald stayed within 1 stroke of tournament leader Jim Furyk with 18 holes to play at the Tour Championship.

All that is at stake is $1.35 million for the winner and a $10 million bonus for the winner of the FedEx Cup.

For Donald, a win might be the most satisfying thing of all, whatever happens with the various other permutations and projections.

"The goal is always to improve every year, to just keep getting better," he said. "I had four really good years at college. I felt like those kind of were a stepping-stone into making me feel my game was good enough to compete out here on the U.S. Tour.

"I was very fortunate to get my card the first time going through all three stages of Q-School, and every year I just feel like I've progressed. You learn along the way, you learn from the defeats and you learn from the successes, too. I definitely feel like I'm growing as a player and feeling more comfortable out here every year."

So why not more victories on the PGA Tour?

It's certainly not like Donald has been terrible. Since he started playing the tour full time in 2002, he has failed to earn less than $1 million just one time. He's had 42 top-10 finishes, including 10 in 2006 and another five this year. He's had nine runner-up finishes.

Donald has had similar success on the European Tour, where he has three titles, his latest coming this year at the Madrid Masters. He was also third at the Celtic Manor Wales Open -- home to next week's Ryder Cup.

And as far as that competition goes, it didn't hurt that Donald compiled a 5-1-1 record while helping the European side to routs in 2004 and 2006. (He missed most of 2008 with a wrist injury.)

Donald was upset with himself Saturday for a double-bogey 7 at the par-5 15th, where he three-putted after a poor bunker shot. If he fails to win, he will certainly look back on that as a lost opportunity. Nonetheless, he is in the second-to-last group with Geoff Ogilvy, tied with Retief Goosen and only a shot behind Furyk.

"That's a great place to be," he said after shooting 1-over-par 71. "I'd rather be there than having no chance at all. That's what makes it fun. I think it's going to be fun for the crowds, fun for the players. There's a lot that can happen."

Fun is a funny word in this instance. Even for guys who have played for and earned millions of dollars, the idea that $10 million is at stake with one round of golf to go is somewhat daunting.

And really, that's what this whole FedEx Cup series is about.

In a way, this is the kind of scenario the powers that be envisioned. The top three players on the board need to win the tournament in order to claim the FedEx Cup, so they might as well go all out. (In the first three years of the FedEx Cup, as it turned out, the winner of the overall series did not need to win the Tour Championship, although Tiger Woods claimed both in 2007.)

"I have to win, and the rest of it I can't control," Furyk said.

"I'm not really thinking about the FedEx Cup," Goosen said. "I want to try and win the tournament, and whatever happens behind me happens. I really came into this week not really expecting to win the FedEx Cup. I was not anywhere near the top five, so my goal was to just try and play well."

For Furyk, who began the week 11th in points, to win the FedEx Cup he needs to win the Tour Championship and have Paul Casey tie for second or worse (tied for fifth currently), Charley Hoffman tie for third or worse (tied for seventh), Steve Stricker tie for second three ways or worse (tied for 12th), Matt Kuchar tie for sixth or worse (tied for 23rd) and Dustin Johnson to tie for fourth or worse (27th).

For Goosen, who began the week 17th, to win he needs to win and have Casey tie for second or worse, Hoffman end up in a three-way tie for third or worse, Jason Day tie for second or worse (tied for ninth), Stricker finish solo third or worse, Kuchar finish solo 11th or worse and Johnson tie for fourth three ways or worse.

In other words, based on where players currently stand, it is more than possible.

Then there is Donald, who is in the best spot of all. He started seventh in points and needs to win the tournament, Kuchar in a three-way tie for second or worse and Johnson in a tie for second or worse.

(Both Casey and Hoffman still have a chance to win the FedEx Cup without winning the Tour Championship.)

So Donald is that close to winning $11.35 million in one day.

To do so, he needs to accomplish something that has been rare for him on the PGA Tour -- and surprisingly so.

"I have to win to win it," Donald said, meaning he's got to win the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup. "So that would be the goal."

And, if accomplished, quite lucrative.

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