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Luke Donald : Master of Madrid

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece profiles Luke Donald

Posted Jun 01, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

luke donald

An overdue victory from Luke Donald in the Madrid Masters, reminded me of the time when I first became aware of him as a serious golfing talent.  The scene was Ljunghusens GC, a less than clearly defined links course on the south coast of Sweden, and the occasion was the European Men's Amateur Team Championship of 2001.
Late in the afternoon of the opening day, the auld enemy had deprived Ireland of the outright lead at the end of the first round of qualifying strokeplay.  A stunning, course-record 63 from Donald had done the damage.  Dramatically, he finished with three birdies, having sunk a 12-footer following a greenside bunker recovery on the long 18th.

Only slightly less impressive was his reaction afterwards, which spoke volumes for his acknowledged status as one of the world's leading amateur players.  When his card had been signed, English officials cautioned that I had only a few minutes to talk to him, since the team bus was leaving.

"I won't be going on the bus," the recent graduate in art theory from Northwestern University, informed them. "I want to do about 20 minutes' on the putting green."   There wasn't a word of official dissent: alternative travelling arrangements were promptly made.

By the time we met again, Donald was an established tournament professional, plying his craft on both sides of the Atlantic.  And I remember him remarking how brutally demanding life on tour could be, mentally and physically, because it involved a weekly grind, very different to the freedom of his amateur days.

Which was why he turned to art?  "It's a diversion," he acknowledged. "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."  He went on to talk about his most recent creation which was the short 15th hole at Cypress Point.  This was especially fascinating to me insofar as the spectacular, short 16th, which is played over an elbow of the Pacific Ocean, is the most celebrated par-three at Cypress Point.  

In the event, I found myself informing him of the Irish significance of the less famous 15th.  That was where Philip Walton, in 1981, chipped in for a winning birdie two as Ronan Rafferty's partner in their amazing, 4 and 2 Walker Cup foursomes win over Hal Sutton and Jay Sigel, then the two best amateurs in the world. To which Donald produced one of those enigmatic smiles for which he is now famous.

When I look at him swinging a club, the word which immediately springs to mind is balance.  Extraordinary, enviable balance.  And it seems that he didn't have to fight particularly hard to achieve success in the game.  Indeed from speaking to people who knew him in his teen years, I learned that golf always came easy to him.

But he managed to acquire competitive steel which was evident in some torrid matches when he led Britain and Ireland to back-to-back Walker Cup victories in 1999 and 2001. In the process, he built a record of seven wins and only one defeat, which has been surpassed only by Michael Bonallack, who took an entire career to reach eight Walker Cup victories.

Reared in Buckinghamshire in a closely-knit, middle-class family, Donald made the surprising decision, after going on scholarship to the US, to commit himself to the American scene when he turned professional in the autumn of 2001.  His older brother, Christian, who had been a club professional in England, joined him as his caddie, though they have since parted.

Meanwhile, he didn't have to wait long for a professional breakthrough.  In his first full season, he became the 11th rookie in US Tour history to top $1 million, winning the rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic by a stroke from Deane Pappas.  At year's end, his mother, Ann, woke on Christmas morning to a shiny, new Mercedes SLK, which was her son's way of expressing his gratitude for all her help during his amateur years.

Many admirers will feel that through his victory last Sunday, he gave a very timely present to Europe's Ryder Cup skipper, Colin Montgomerie, who would have viewed him as a very valuable candidate for the battle with the US in early October.  As Donald once told me: "I love team golf, mainly because of my two Walker Cups, which were so much fun."    

And Monty had first-hand evidence of his enduring commitment to the team cause, when Donald took three points out of three in the runaway Ryder Cup triumph over the Americans at The K Club, four years ago.

- Dermot Gilleece

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