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Luke Donald - Prodigious Talent

Dermot Gilleece is not surprised by his matchplay win

Posted Feb 28, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

luke donald

Luke Donald, the newly-crowned Accenture World Matchplay champion, had already created quite a reputation for himself in amateur ranks, when I saw him for the first time.  The occasion was the European Men's Amateur Team Championship at Ljunghusens GC in southern Sweden in July 2001 when he carded a course-record 63 towards the end of the first round of strokeplay qualifying, to deprive Ireland of the outright lead.

As I remember them, conditions were perfect for scoring provided one’s stamina held up under a burning sun, cooled by a gentle breeze. Indeed conditions were not unlike those which Donald experienced at Dove Mountain last week, though Sweden spared us the extreme chill of Arizona mornings.

It was Donald’s self-possessed attitude 10 years ago which impressed as much as the quality of his play.  When he had signed his card, English officials cautioned that the media had only a few minutes to talk to him, since the team bus was leaving.  "I won't be going on the bus," the 23-year-old graduate from Chicago’s Northwestern University informed them. "I want to do about 20 minutes' on the putting green."  Which meant that alternative travelling arrangements were promptly made.

Indicative of superb approach play was that his eight-under-par score was achieved with the relatively high tally of 28 putts.  There was a two-putt birdie at the long 14th and he hit every green in regulation with the exception of the eighth, where he got up and down for a par. The round finished with three birdies, the last of them a splendid up and down from a right greenside bunker at the 556-yard 18th.   Typical of his Arizona exploits, it was a difficult recovery which slipped 12 feet past the target, but Donald seemed to will the left-to-right breaking putt into the hole, as the ball wriggled stubbornly before dropping. 

It is interesting to recall that Graeme McDowell was a leading member of the Ireland team on that occasion and started the Europeans impressively with an opening 67, four strokes behind Donald.  And a month later, both of them were members of the British and Irish Walker Cup team which gained the distinction of retaining the trophy for the first time.

The venue was Sea Island, Georgia where a strong American team which included Lucas Glover and Bryce Molder, were hammered 15-9.  Having displayed his strokeplay skills in Sweden, Donald’s equally impressive command of matchplay was on show in the Walker Cup.  In fact he took three points out of four, winning his foursomes in partnership with fellow Englishman, Nick Dougherty, on the second day when he also gained a notable singles win, beating Glover by 3 and 2 at the top of the order.  On the opening day, he had the same victory margin over Jeff Quinney at number six in the singles.

In truth, Donald was something as an old-hand by that stage, having been a member of the victorious team at Nairn two years previously.  On that occasion, he took four points out of four, winning both his foursomes matches in partnership with Paul Casey to complement singles wins over Tom McKnight and Molder.

So, we shouldn‘t have been surprised by events in Arizona.  Donald was a full English amateur international from 1996 to 2001, during which time he gained invaluable matchplay experience which is generally denied his American counterparts who engage, almost exclusively, in strokeplay during their formative years at college.

Meanwhile, those of us fortunate to have been present on the links terrain of Ljunghusens 10 years ago, were aware we were witnessing a special talent.  The only surprise has been the length of time it has taken him to establish world-class status in professional tanks.

- Dermot Gilleece

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