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An Artist on and off the Course

Dermot Gilleece profiles Luke Donald

Posted May 31, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

luke donald 2


In the wake of dramatic happenings at Wentworth, it would be gratifying to be able to point to some telling prediction from several years ago about the potential of Luke Donald.  But the truth is that my first serious chat with him had more to go with art than golf.   

It came about at Baltray in 2004 when, as a fairly nondescript competitor in the Irish Open, he was tied 22nd behind the Australian, Brett Rumford.  Aware of his love of art, which he studied at Northwestern University in Chicago, my initial curiosity was whether his digital camera would be focused on the spectacular scenery which encompassed long-range views of the Mountains of Mourne.  And if the mood struck him, might he engage in some painting.

Before long, it became clear that Donald had no wish to be seen as a latter-day James Cagney, who applied himself very successfully to movie-acting, essentially to finance a love of painting and horses.  "I'm a professional golfer who does art as a hobby," the soft-spoken Englishman assured me.

We had met the previous week beside the putting green at Royal Troon after he had been working with Pat Goss, his former coach at Northwestern University in Chicago.  "Pat knows my swing better than anyone and the things we've worked on seem to be making me a better golfer," he said. "He knows my problems and what to do to help them go away."

Now, the topic was art. "It's a diversion," he said. "Just putting the canvas on the frame takes three or four hours. It's very time-consuming and it doesn't mix that well with golf. It takes me about 30 hours to complete a painting, working two or three hours at a time.  I completed my most recent one, the short 15th hole at Cypress Point, last Christmas.  Nothing since then. It's hard to pick up the paint brush during the season. It takes so long." 

Whereupon I informed him of the Irish significance of that particular hole.  It was where Philip Walton, in 1981, chipped in for a winning birdie two when partnering Ronan Rafferty to an amazing 4 and 2 Walker Cup foursomes win over Hal Sutton and Jay Sigel, then the two best amateurs in the world. Which prompted another of those enigmatic, Donald smiles.

The only Irish amateur who came into his mind was Walker Cup player, Jody Fanagan, to whom he actually lost at Burnham and Berrow in 1997.  "Jody was a nice player, a very straight hitter," he recalled.  "Not like a lot of Irish players, who tend to be quite quirky.  They have a low ball flight and don't always have perfect swings, yet they know how to get the ball in the hole.  That's what I remember from my Irish opponents: very hard competitors who would fight to the end."

One of the new brigade, Shane Lowry, shared fourth place behind Donald on Sunday.  Interestingly, he achieved a distinction which eluded the gifted Englishman by capturing the professional Irish Open as an amateur, at Baltray, as it happened.  That was in May 2009 when the two-year exemption he earned from the European Tour allowed him to compete at Wentworth.      
     
In the event, Donald’s first experience of Irish links terrain was in the Irish Open of 2003.  "Portmarnock was great,” he enthused.  “I loved its fairness, especially having come from Royal St George's (where the Open Championship is returning in July). I'd rather they had held the Open there.”  Which would suggest that for all his current prominence, Donald might not be a particularly hot bet for a Major breakthrough in July.  Indeed the upcoming US Open at Congressional might he more likely to reward his superb short-game skills.
 
Meanwhile, on that Irish visit seven years ago, he was a relatively modest 59th in the world rankings.  Since then, his climb to the top has been one of the fascinating stories in a momentous period for European golf.

- Dermot Gilleece

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