Here, in a piece from our March issue, Donald reflects on his glory years and explains what he’s doing to try and get back to his best
Luke Donald Exclusive: “I Questioned Whether I’d Come Back”
What Luke Donald achieved nine years ago was extraordinary. To win the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic was incredible.
Rory McIlroy may have emulated this achievement since, but Donald flirted with perfection during his 56-week reign as World No.1. It can be easy to forget this, especially when records get surpassed and new players come to the fore.
Twenty-ten to 2012 were the glory years for the Hemel Hempstead man.
Nine of his 13 tour victories came during this time. If he wasn’t winning – and there are those who argue he could and should have won more – he was normally always there or thereabouts.
In 2011, the year he became World No.1, he amassed an incredible 18 top-tens from 22 tournaments.
It’s no wonder he remembers that time with such fondness.
“I found my own way, my own little niche to get there and I was proud of that,” says Donald, who now spends most of his time in Florida.
“It was a power game when I was No.1 and still is. It’s made me more proud of being able to do what I did, defying the odds really because not many people since have been World No.1 and play the game like I do.”
Let’s remind ourselves of Donald’s way of playing. In his pomp, no one was more deadly accurate with a wedge in hand, or as skilled around the greens.
He also possessed a putting stroke that never looked like it could falter; it didn’t, save for that one time he missed from eight feet in 2011 at the Dunhill Links Championship, which meant his streak without a three-putt ended on 449 holes.
That same year, on the PGA Tour, he was a perfect 529 from 529 for putts inside three feet.
The one missing component for Donald was length. In 2011, he averaged 284 yards off the tee – 147th on the PGA Tour and over 30 yards down on leader JB Holmes. He knows about these numbers, of course, because it was an area of his game he once tried to strengthen.
“You need a certain amount of length to compete, but I was below average when it came to distance,” he says.
“When I first came out on tour, I was very straight and a good driver of the ball, but even shorter. As time went on I tried to hit the ball a little further and my driving got worse.
“After I was World No.1, my focus went to being more of a consistent driver. I wasn’t really chasing length, but I wanted to be a little bit more consistent to give myself more opportunity with my irons and my short game, so I wasn’t just playing defence on the golf course through poor driving. That’s really been the focus the last few years.”
Hampered by injury
Finding any level of consistency is tough going at the moment. In the last three seasons, the Englishman has missed more cuts than he’s made.
In 2017, he missed eight successive cuts in America.
Into 2018 and things were getting painful, quite literally. Herniated L4 and L5 disks forced him to spend almost an entire year on the sidelines, during which time he underwent stem-cell therapy. These were testing times.
“Some people have had very similar injuries and it has been the end of their career,” says Donald. “Surgery was never really on the table for me. You try and avoid that at all costs. I never had pain going down my leg, which is probably a sign that you need some kind of surgery to fix it.
“There were times when I questioned whether I’d come back, was it ever going to get better, all that kind of stuff. Injuries always play havoc with your mind, but what always helped me was taking it day to day and trying to see that gradual improvement.
“That’s kind of how I’ve always approached my golf as well, like everything in life really; what can I do today to make it a little bit better?
“I don’t like to sit and do nothing, it’s tough. I get fidgety. I always try and figure out how I can do something. I was always asking the professionals who were helping me, ‘Can I get in the gym or can I do this, or do some swings without a club?’
When you understand the knock-on effects of such an injury, you realise why the road to recovery can be so long.
“I’ve been looking at 3D patterns of my swing, the way I practise, how I practise, the posture I get into,” explains Donald. “I’ve got a stronger base now. I’ve done a lot of things with my swing to take pressure off that area and they take time to stick, but I’m getting more comfortable as time goes by.”
The other side
In May 2018, Donald found himself in the commentary booth for the BMW PGA Championship. It’s not really where he wanted to be.
Seven years earlier he had beaten Lee Westwood in a dramatic play-off at Wentworth to become World No.1 – and he defended the title a year later. These are fond memories and, understandably, he wanted to be out there competing.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though. For Donald, he got to travel without the clubs and spend time with the family in Greece and Cornwall. And, when Nick Dougherty did pass him the mic, he learned a thing or two.
“It gave me insight into what goes on behind the scenes. It’s no easy work and it’s long days, but I enjoyed it,” he says.
“I spent hours preparing and looking up stuff that I wouldn’t usually think about when I’m preparing for a tournament. As a golfer, you’re immersed in the tournament and not watching what the other golfers are doing. In commentary, you see what’s happening; you see how the leaders become leaders and you see how they close tournaments.
“It’s nothing jaw-dropping. It’s just they’re doing everything that little bit better throughout the week. Watching that was helpful.”
Looking to the future
Donald is back playing now, of course, and happy to put the punditry to one side. The green shoots of recovery were evident at the Valspar Championship in March 2019, where he finished in a tie for ninth. And, in September, he finished tied tenth at the Dunhill Links for his best result on the European Tour in two years.
“I feel like I’m progressing,” he says. “I’m getting stronger every week. I’m not experiencing much discomfort. I can get in a good amount of practice now and I’m building it even more as time goes by. I’m excited about getting reps in and seeing progress.
“There are definitely lots of good signs. I still have to manage it [my back]. I’m not out there eight hours a day beating balls, but I don’t think where I am in my career I need to do that either.”
At the end of 2018, Donald found himself at 609 in the world rankings. He’s more optimistic about the future now, although he resists making any bold predictions.
“There are a lot of really young, hungry players now,” he says. “The fields are so deep. It’s amazing how good the standard is overall. A couple of missed putts and you’re struggling to make the cut. You have one bad hole and the tournament’s almost over.
“It’s that tough at the top level and that’s been the biggest shift. I don’t know whether it’s a generation after Tiger or whoever it might be who inspired these young kids, but that seems to be the biggest change.”
There may be a few grey flicks beneath that trademark Mizuno visor, but the 42-year-old is putting the foundations in place to play for the next 20 years.
“It’s building that belief again, but it’s a lot easier when you’ve done it before. You can really come back to stuff you’ve done in the past and what’s worked.
“When I was at my best, I was super focused on the day-to-day stuff, trying to get a little bit better and not really worrying too much about the results.
“I was really engulfed in the process of what can I do today even if I didn’t hit it well; sticking with what I was trying to do and having belief. That’s always served me best and I’m trying to get back to that.”
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