England?s finest has been a potential Major winner for several years but now Luke Donald has convinced himself that he is ready to turn that promise into reality.
It was Peter McEvoy, twice Luke Donald?s captain in the Walker Cup, who set the alarm bells ringing. While the rest of us are waiting for the day when Donald brings home a Major, McEvoy suggested that players like Donald, Nick Dougherty, Graeme McDowell and Michael Hoey should be winning them already. In McEvoy?s opinion, they are that good.
?They can?t go on living off their potential,? says McEvoy in his newly-published book, For Love or Money, ?they?ve got to do it now.? He goes on to recall how Tony Jacklin went to America in the late 1960s and wasted little time in winning the 1968 Jacksonville Open. ?A year or so later, he was winning Majors and he only slowed down after his short game started to desert him.? For the record, Jacklin had just turned 25 when he captured the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1969.
There are those who might think that McEvoy is expecting too much too soon in an era when, Tiger Woods apart, many of the Major winners have been aged 30 or over. Donald, though, is not among them. ?Peter McEvoy is someone I listened to a lot when I was growing up and I don?t think that he is speaking out of turn,? he says. ?He was a great amateur in his day, one of the best, and his view is no different from that of another great player ? namely, Jack Nicklaus.?
Nor, for that matter, is it any different to Donald?s own view of some
4½ years ago. It was in 2002, not long after he had secured his card for the PGA Tour, that Donald the rookie was asked where he thought he would be in five years? time. His reply was along the lines that he expected to have won a number of US tour events, ?including a couple of Majors.?
SHOOTING FOR THE TOP
Had he set his sights rather lower, Donald would by now be revelling in a professional career which has to date yielded two official wins in both Europe and the States, a share of third place in last year?s Masters and a victory in Tiger?s own Target World Challenge. However, his way is to aim for the very top. ?You can never set your sights too high,? he says.
Even if this year?s Masters turned into ?one of those weeks? ? he followed opening rounds of 74 and 72 with a 76 and a 74 ? Donald offers reassurance that he could win any of the Majors ahead. At the same time, he admits that he is still learning what that takes. As Woods has so often said, a player needs a few lucky breaks over the 72 holes, while he must also do everything he can to ensure he is in peak form at the right time
Donald cannot do much to orchestrate the lucky breaks but, when it comes to peaking, he feels he is beginning to master the art. ?It?s a matter of putting in a little bit of extra effort in every area,? he explains. ?Not just to sharpen your play but to leave you with the feeling that you could not have done more.? He has watched Tiger closely in a Major context and noted that he is different from the everyday Tiger. ?It?s the mindset he gets himself into. He?s very focused and, more so than usual, he doesn?t speak to a lot of people. He plays his golf, he practises and he disappears.?
Donald has adjusted his own off-course approach in the last couple of years. Though there are plenty of golfers who enjoy a houseful of guests for the week of the Masters or the Open, at Augusta this year Donald shared a home with his girlfriend, Diane, while her mother kept house. Donald then arranged accommodation for friends and family nearby. ?The reason is simple,? he says. ?Regardless of whether I?ve played well or badly, I don?t want to hear people discussing my round at the end of the day and I definitely don?t want to get involved in such conversations myself. Looking back gets in the way.?
In both the weeks leading up to a Major and the week itself, Donald spends a lot of time ?putting myself in the picture? ? visualising the course and seeing himself hitting good shots from specific places.
?It?s all about positive reinforcement, of convincing yourself that you are going to do well,? explains the 28-year-old.
Jim Fannin, Donald?s sports psychologist, has changed his player from the unassuming Englishman who first turned up at Chicago?s Northwestern University in 1997 to one who does not mind making public his plans to be ?the best in the world?. To those who have questioned whether he is qualified to make such a statement, Donald says: ?If you want to be great, you have to believe you are great before you can get there and that?s why I am now approaching each Major as if I?m the best player there.?
Donald?s brother, Christian, who carries his clubs, does what he can to reinforce that message. Indeed, he will often sit in with Luke on Fannin?s sessions, the idea being that the two of them learn how to get the most out of each other ? a formula mirrored by Stephen Ames and his younger brother Robert. After practically coming to blows at the 2005 Players Championship, they worked so successfully together in this year?s event that 42-year-old Stephen secured the biggest win of his career to date.
Colin Montgomerie is among those who feel a little envious of the ?brother on the bag? arrangement enjoyed by Donald.
?It has to be a huge advantage for Luke to have a family member caddying for him as he travels the American tour,? says the Scot, who never really enjoyed any of his longer solo stints in the States.
DO NOT DISTURB
On the course, the Fannin school of thought includes ?breathing like a baby? in times of pressure. That, according to Donald, involves inhaling gently from the stomach rather than taking deep gulps of air. There is also the ?five seconds rule?, which dictates that in the five seconds after hitting a shot, the player must not allow himself to get down. ?You have to find something positive to think about,? says Donald. In his eyes, no players do it better than Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. ?Vijay, in particular,? he notes, ?hits a bad shot and it is as if he isn?t worried about it.?
Mind you, Montgomerie says much the same of Donald: ?Nothing, simply nothing disturbs Luke Donald. He knows he is not as long as a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson but he is happy doing things his way and he does them decidedly well.?
Ask Donald to pinpoint what he thinks his peers admire the most about his play and he suggests it would be a close-run thing between his attitude ? the way he never gets ?too up or too down? ? and his iron play.
The question of whether or not he has the necessary length is something he finds a little irritating. Though he accepts that he is not among the longest hitters and wouldn?t say no to a few extra yards, he shares the opinion of his coach, Pat Goss, that he is long enough. All he has had to guard against is an old tendency to hit the ball too hard when the pressure is mounting ? a tendency he kept nicely in check when he won this year?s Honda Classic in Florida, pocketing $990,000 into the bargain.
Goss, the golf coach at Northwestern, did for Donald?s swing what Fannin did for his golfing mind. Donald was more of a links specialist than anything else when he arrived in Chicago and Goss adjusted his swing to one that marries perfectly with the American professional circuit.
When Chicago was covered in snow, the two would work together in Northwestern?s million-dollar Gleacher indoor centre, where the latest in video equipment allowed them to make a detailed study of Donald?s action in relation to Tiger Woods? then seemingly perfect swing.
It seems Donald has everything covered, including the way in which he paces himself. He knows how to switch off and, more than most, he has no shortage of alternative interests to turn to. As you would expect of someone who studied art and its history, he is scarcely less talented with a paintbrush in hand than he is with a wedge. Recently he finished his second poster for the Western Open, a picture of Jim Furyk lifting the trophy aloft in 2005.
As revealed in a recent US advert in which he talks about his interests away from the game, Donald can also play the piano. He might have only attained Grade 4 but can still give a cheerful rendition of Fleur de Lys.
Donald probably didn?t need a wake-up call from McEvoy because everything he is doing at the moment is calculated to make him a better player. Indeed, it is in ?plodding along as he does? ? to use a Tiger phrase which is rather more complimentary in the States than it is over here ? that he will almost certainly happen across his first Major. With a few lucky breaks it might even be under his belt before the end of the year.