Too polite. Too soft. Too many top 10s, not enough top ones. For years, Luke Donald heard why he would never be truly great. He refused to believe it. Brimming with resolve, the 5’9″ Englishman prepared for 2011 by hitting the gym, tweaking his swing and taking a sabbatical.
When he returned in late February, Donald looked and sounded like a welterweight fixing for a fight. He was more opinionated, with more meat on his bones and fire in his belly. He thrashed six opponents to win the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. He finished tied for fourth at the Masters. Then at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, he beat Lee Westwood in a playoff to become the new World No. 1. Donald, 33, had reached the summit, albeit with one glaring hole on his resume: A major title.
“Being ranked World No. 1 is self-satisfying,” he says. “Winning a major makes you more accepted as a great player by your peers.” You can guess what’s next on his to-do list.
How did it feel to finally become the No. 1-ranked player in the world?
A great honor and achievement. It will be a great story when I’m an old man telling my grandkids that I was once the best player in the world.
Was it an ambition fulfilled?
No, it has never really been the goal. When I was working with [life coach] Jim Fannin in 2006, his aim for me was to become No. 1. And I got it into my head that that’s what I wanted to do. I was a little skeptical because Tiger was No. 1 then, and you see what goes along with being No. 1 with Tiger and the media. I have always grown up with a balanced life. Golf isn’t everything.
So you were reluctant to assume the responsibilities that come with being No. 1?
Well, it’s tough to be No. 1, but once Lee [Westwood] and Martin [Kaymer] became No. 1, you could see that nothing really changed for them. They’re not Tiger. It’s a different scenario being No. 1 for them. That’s fine; I can deal with that. I guess a few years ago it would have scared me a little bit, because I was relating it to what Tiger did and went through.
How do you think you are perceived by the public?
I’m sure people see me as quiet and someone who keeps things to himself a little bit. I might be quiet, but there’s a lot of fire inside me, and hopefully people see that sometimes.
Like the fist pump when you chipped in on the 72nd hole at this year’s Masters?
Exactly. At that point Geoff Ogilvy and Tiger were in at 10-under. Adam Scott, Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel were all behind me. They were 12-under and would have had to make a couple of bogeys or a double-bogey coming in. I knew if I didn’t get to 10-under I didn’t have any chance. So that was part of the motivation. And I’d played such an unbelievable second shot to get anywhere near the green. I mean it hits the pin and spins back off the green. Are you kidding me? I thought, “Right, I’m gonna get you, Augusta.” It was an “F-you” moment. I got my own back. It was nice to see it go in.
Have you always thought of yourself as an underdog in a bombers’ game?
I don’t think it’s easy to win nowadays, and I guess I’m classified as an old-fashioned player because I like to shape the ball. I am not a bomber. I’m more about precision and being target-oriented. I have to rely on all parts of my game firing if I’m going to win. It’s not easy, because fields seem to be getting deeper. And a lot of these guys hit it 40 yards past me. But there is more to the game than hitting it far. There are ways to make birdies other than hitting 350-yard drives. I pride myself on a good short game; I work very hard at it.
Have you accepted the limitations of your game, then, and worked out how to get the most out of it?
I had a good run in 2006 with a bunch of top 10s, and I got to No. 7 in the world. Then I thought about how I could get to No. 1, and too much of my focus was on the need to hit the ball farther. But I really had all the assets in place. I just needed to play my game. I got caught out with that and got my swing in a bad position trying to hit the ball harder. It took me three or four years to get it back to where I had more control over it. But I’ve never had a dip in my form like Lee had. I’ve always grinded it out. There have been times where I’ve had to rely on my short game a lot or my iron play. But I’ve always made it work. I’m always a grinder. I get the most I can out of my game.
Have you adopted a cold-blooded attitude in order to compete?
Yeah, but mostly for myself. You’re always going to get negative media if you don’t win. I accept that. But I try to work as hard as I can to fix that. There is a determination to succeed. I don’t like losing at anything. Just ask my wife. If it’s just a game of tiddlywinks, I still don’t like losing. And I don’t think it was a mental issue, either. Look at my play in Ryder Cups, which are more pressure-packed than anything. I’ve always performed well.
Has the success that European players have enjoyed in recent years helped inspire you?
You need one guy to inspire a generation. For me that was Padraig Harrington when he won his two [British] Opens [in 2007 and 2008] and the PGA [in 2008]. It sets a fire in your belly. If he can do it, so can I.
What would give you more pleasure: being World No. 1 or winning a major?
Being ranked World No. 1 is self-satisfying. Winning a major makes you seem more accepted as a great player by your peers.
So you’d rather win a major?
I would swap being No. 1 for Phil Mickelson’s four majors, yes. As a kid you dream about winning them. For the bulk of my career Tiger was so far ahead that being No. 1 never crept into my mind. But his personal issues and injuries have given us all a chance.
Would you agree that you should have won a major by now?
I should have. Probably. I haven’t had too many great chances. But I’m getting closer and would love to win one. I’ve always wanted to win one, whether I’m World No. 1 or No. 100.
Is it safe to say that the British Open is the major you dream about winning the most?
Well, since I come from the U.K., I would obviously love to win the Open. It’s the home major for me. But I would take any of them.
Will it feel like a failure if you don’t win one?
Oh, I think so. But I’ve given it my all. I’m trying to peak for the majors. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.
Does that get frustrating? Golf is a game where you lose so much more than you win.
Yeah, I’ve never seen a champion who hasn’t lost. You have to lose to find out what you need to improve. Hopefully, I’ve learned from some of my top 10s. I keep fighting even if I’m not in with a chance, because you never know when that one shot might change something. I would rather do that than slip away to finish 25th or 50th.
But with all the new kids coming through, you’re no longer one of the young guns.
We’re all getting old [smiles]. That happens in every sport. There have been a lot of pros who’ve been successful in their 30s and 40s. I’ve just got to stay away from injuries and have some longevity. I have the sort of game where I can be competing for a while.
Do you feel that the clock is ticking?
We’re lucky in this game in that we get to play for a number of years and there are people you can look back at. You know, someone like Padraig, who had all those runner-up finishes and then suddenly won three majors. You just keep your head down, keep believing and hopefully it will work out.
Was your WGC-Accenture Match Play victory a watershed?
It seems to have been a huge moment. It gave me a confidence boost, because the longer you go without winning, the more doubts you have. I knew I had the ability to do it, but actually doing it is different.
Do you think you would have won more tournaments if there were more match-play events?
Yeah, if you look back at Ryder Cups and Walker Cups, I have a great record. I have always thrived when it’s one against one. Dave [Alred, his mental-game coach] is always trying to get me to feel like that in stroke-play events. But it’s tough because it’s a different mentality. If you make a triple bogey in match play, it doesn’t really matter. If you do that in stroke play, you tumble down the leaderboard. It would certainly be fun to break up the year with a few more match-play events.
Do you think you intimidate opponents in match play?
I hope so. Hopefully I’m starting to become intimidating. That would be a good thing.
Does the form you’ve been in for the past year give you some insight into what it was like for Tiger in his prime?
I suppose so. It certainly raises your confidence. I have a long way to go to get to all of the accomplishments that Tiger has been able to do. Winning 80-plus tournaments around the world, and all of those majors , is pretty amazing. But being in contention week in and week out, you start to expect it a little bit more, which I’m sure Tiger did in his prime, too.
What do you make of Tiger’s decline?
Golf is like that. It’s very mental and physical. When one of those goes, it becomes tough. He has obviously struggled with some personal issues and it’s hard to get that out of your mind at times. He took a long break from the game to try to change a few things and it hasn’t worked out for him. But he has plenty of talent and I wouldn’t write him off yet. If I come close to the amount of tournaments he’s won, I’ll be doing extremely well.
What did you think of Tiger calling you a “plodder” in 2005?
I suppose it was a compliment. It shows how consistent I am. That I have a chance to win every week.
So it didn’t hurt when Christian, your brother and former caddie, started calling you Plod?
It wasn’t really Christian that called me that; it was some of the players. Maybe subconsciously it hurt.
What was your reaction when, in 2009, an American journalist wrote a piece for a British newspaper alleging that you, like many other players of your generation, were happy to coast along without ever winning? He said you had no drive and labeled your condition “Luke Donald Disease.”
That upset me. That was a terribly written article by a journalist who had never met me. Fair enough if you want to criticize that I haven’t won enough—I’m the first to criticize myself. But to say it’s down to not having the desire or work ethic, that I’m someone who’s happy to pick up checks but who doesn’t really care about winning, is ridiculous. He should come and watch me practice. If he’d seen me work, he might have written that article differently.
PGA Tour veteran Joe Ogilvie had your back. Earlier this year he posted a tweet asking if anyone could show him how to catch Luke Donald Disease.
He saw the funny side of it. People want to be in contention every week. And I’ve been doing that. If it was me just chasing the money, you get a lot more for coming in first than you do for eighth.
Growing up, who were your heroes?
I watched Seve a lot on TV winning his Opens and the Masters. But I’ve modeled my game a little bit on Nick Faldo’s. I tried to stay away from Seve’s! [Laughs] The European Tour and the European players owe a big debt of gratitude to Seve. He put the European Tour on the map with his flair, his charisma.
With you, Westwood, Rory McIlroy and many other Europeans playing so well, do you feel that you’re at the forefront of another great era for British and European golf?
It’s similar to the generation back in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Faldo, Seve, Woosnam, Lyle, Langer and Olazabal. It’s a great time for European golf, and especially for English golf.
There’s something different about you this year.
Maybe I’ve found the right formula. I can’t put my finger on a specific point. It’s been a natural and gradual progression. But confidence breeds confidence, and that win at the Match Play was a big deal. Even winning the Madrid Masters in 2010 was a big deal. Winning means a lot more than finishing top 10.