Luke Donald: Brush With Greatness

Luke Donald: Brush With Greatness

Unlike many of the bright young things on Tour, Luke Donald, 29, favors an old-school, my-clubs-will-do-the-talking-thank-you-very-much approach. His game is steady, but he lacks the palpable blood thirst of Sergio Garcia, the polished grace of Adam Scott or the wayward wackiness of Ian Poulter. Donald, who paints as a pastime, is a more subdued pastel to the primary-color boldness of his peers. Currently ranked 13th in the world, Donald’s rise has been steady if unspectacular. The upside to that is there’s potential for a sudden explosion of dramatic fireworks, and the affable Chicago-based Brit has everything he needs to make that happen.

So do you feel like the “potential” period is over and now it’s time to win a major? Absolutely. I’ve had four years out here. My goals aren’t just to show up and have a good week. I want to win. I might not be the best player every day, but on any given day I can be the best.

You averaged 284.5 yards per drive in 2005, yet some people insist you’re a short hitter. Does that rub you the wrong way? Some of people brand me as a short hitter. I don’t think I’m short. I’m average on Tour. When I’m swinging well, I can hold my own against most players who wouldn’t be considered short. No player likes to be called short. I got tagged as a short hitter, and I don’t think that’s true.

How did it feel to play with Jack Nicklaus at St. Andrews in the final major championship round of his career, with Tom Watson no less? It was a great thrill and a great honor.

What was your initial reaction to hearing the news? I thought, “Wow, this is going to be hard in a way with the crowds and the media attention around me. To be a part of what might be Jack’s last few rounds, I knew it was going to be fun, but I also knew it was going to be hard.

Was it tough to stay focused when it would’ve been easy to fall into the role of a fan? I was a bit nervous the first couple of holes during the first round. But I knew both gentlemen reasonably well. They’re both very easygoing on the course. The first round felt like we were playing a late Sunday afternoon round together, just having fun. There just happened to be 100,000 people watching us. I felt very relaxed with those two guys. I didn’t feel like I was competing against them, even though they both made birdie on the first hole. I was like, “Wow, these guys came to play.”

Did you come close to losing it? Sure. There was so much emotion out there. I started to well up a little bit and held it back. Those last two holes, 17 and 18, were very tough. The roars got louder and the crowds kept building and building. No matter where you looked, people were watching. All the players on the surrounding greens were watching. It probably took 35 or 40 minutes to finish.

Tell us about the pressure of playing in the Ryder Cup [in 2004]. That first tee shot is built up so much, you can’t help but be nervous. I got up there and I felt pretty good. Then I stuck the tee in the ground and that’s when it hit me. I started shaking a little bit. I tried to concentrate, but I got my legs way ahead of me and the club behind me, and I nearly hit it onto the ninth tee. Probably one of the worst drives I’ve ever hit on the first hole of any round. My partner, Paul McGinley, made par. I was just short of the green in 4. I made a solid 6 [laughs].

Was there late-night celebrating after that victory? Yes. We frequented a couple of Irish bars, mixed with the Irish supporters who came out. I think Darren Clarke had the most fun. He didn’t want to get out of bed for a couple of days after that.

You and Sergio went 2-0 in foursomes. Why do you make a good partnership? We get on really well. He’s good at relaxing me, making everything lighthearted. I never felt pressure playing with Sergio. That’s part of the reason we played so well.

If you played for the American team, who’s the guy you’d least like to play against? Sergio. He gets up so much for the Ryder Cup. He doesn’t want to lose.

How did a golf ace from England end up at Northwestern, not exactly a sports powerhouse? I knew I wanted to come to a university in America, and I was recruited heavily by Stanford. I didn’t get into Stanford, and I was a little upset about it. [Stanford coach] Wally Goodwin felt bad, and he pointed me toward Northwestern. I went for a visit, met [coach] Pat Goss, saw the courses they played on, and really enjoyed Chicago. When I got there in April for my visit and there was still some snow on the ground, but in the end it worked out the best.

Pat must have made quite an impression on you since he’s still your swing coach today. He’s so easy to get on with. He made me feel relaxed from the get-go. After I turned pro, it was an easy decision for me. He knew my swing really well, and I felt like everything we worked on was the right stuff.

Were you a frat boy in college? I joined the winter of my freshman year. Lived in a frat house for two years. I was lucky because I was on the golf team and practiced all afternoon. I wasn’t too wild. Just occasionally. But it was fun. I met a lot of great guys there.

Is it true that you were once bitten by a fraternity snake? What is Pat doing to me? [Laughs] I was over at one of my frat brother’s apartments on a Friday night, it was late, and his friend had a pet snake that he kept in his apartment. A boa constrictor, probably 6 or 7 feet long. Pretty thick. He took it out just to show it to everyone and hung it around his neck. I was intrigued so I went up to him and asked him if it was OK to touch it. I went to pet the snake, and it just saw my hand and went for it, bit me right across the first two fingers of my left hand. A quick bite and off. The owner said, “Well, he hasn’t eaten anything in two weeks and I guess he thought your hand was food.” I was like, “Thanks for telling me that now.” And, actually, a snake’s teeth come out when they bite, so they stayed in my hand. I had to go to the hospital the next morning to get them removed. One was so deep that it’s still in my hand, in the middle crease of my forefinger. I can still feel it sometimes.

You were an art major and are still a pretty fair painter. How did you get into painting? My older brother and sister were good at art in high school, and I picked up on it in high school, too. I was reasonably good at it, enjoyed it, and thought it was better than sitting in a chemistry lab or working on math problems.

After college, you bought a place in Evanston, Ill. Why did you decide to live near Chicago when most Tour players plunk down in warmer spots like Orlando, West Palm or Scottsdale? There were a lot of factors. Obviously, Pat Goss was there. I met my girlfriend Diane there, and I felt comfortable in Chicago. It’s a great city to go out and have fun.

How to Make More Pressure Putts
According to the PGA Tour’s ShotLink, Luke Donald converted 582 of 605 putts (96.2 percent) inside of 6 feet. Use his secrets to sharpen your game
Any putt inside 6 feet is a pressure putt because you expect to make it. And when you miss one, the effect can snowball. Good putters don’t let a miss bother them. They think only about making the next one. Here are my keys to sink more of the short putts that keep your round on track and keep you in the money.
Stay still. As a thought, imagine your head is resting up against a wall as you make your stroke, and that your arms are moving the putter back and forth. The club will swing more down the line for square contact.
Putt blind. The more makeable the putt, the more anxious you are to see the result. This can lead to a quick, jerky stroke. When I’m practicing, I sometimes turn the visor of my cap down so I can’t see the hole. You could simply shut your left eye as well. You won’t be anxious so you can focus on making a good stroke. Remove yourself from the outcome and think positive.
Charge! Take a more aggressive approach. Hit each putt with enough speed to send the ball 18 inches past the hole. The firmer the stroke, the less susceptible the putt is to the green’s slope or break.

Are you a big Cubs fan? I enjoy going out there, having a beer, relaxing. Wrigley’s a pretty special place. Great atmosphere.

You were supposed to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley Field the day St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile died, right? It was the right decision to postpone the game. In a way I was relieved I didn’t have to sing because I had to do a corporate outing the next morning, very early. So I couldn’t go to the game, have a few beers, relax and enjoy it. It would have been fun to sing during the seventh-inning stretch with a couple of beers in me. I would have been more relaxed that way. But I was kind of uptight, having to get up the next morning.

Are there any American customs you just don’t get? Too many traffic lights, I think. I don’t like driving in traffic. The size of the food portions. There’s too much food, too much waste. But these are miniscule things. I think America has a lot to offer, and that’s why I live here. If I really didn’t like living here I’d be back in Europe right now.

You got dragged into the “I hate Americans” comment by your World Cup teammate Paul Casey. What do you make of what’s happened since that firestorm? He’s seemed to struggle a lot since. It could very well be related. I think it’s very unfortunate. Obviously, he said a few things I’m sure he wishes he could take back. But some of the things that were printed he definitely didn’t say. They got blown out of proportion over here. It’s a shame it went as far as it did.

Did you learn anything from the experience? I don’t think you should ever comment on something if you don’t really know the full scale of what you’re talking about.

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