There was one Luke Donald sitting in an armchair in an Inverness hotel last week appearing tanned and relaxed but there are two Luke Donalds who play the game of golf.
The first is the good one. “I’ve been playing the best golf of my life in the past two years,” he states, as he resides on top of the world rankings, a place he has occupied, off but mainly on for 52 weeks. Only four golfers in history, Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros, have enjoyed such lofty heights more than him, and that is not exactly a bad quartet.
“There aren’t too many people in any walk of life who can say they’re the number one in the world, are there?” he reasons.
The second is the not so good one, only ever seen, it seems, four times a year which, unhappily for the 34-year-old father of two young daughters, coincides with the four majors.
He’s been trying to win one of them since his first Open in 1999 and never got closer than two 3rd places, in the Masters and the PGA, and those were recorded back in 2005 and 2006. The longer the drought goes on for the best golfer in the world the greater the issue becomes, not just to the public and the media but, so it transpires, to himself.
“If I never win a major I don’t think I’m going be remembered too much, am I?” he asks, which seems a mite harsh on himself considering the multi millions he has made in dollar bills, the significant parts he has played in European Ryder Cup wins, the seven European Tour and five PGA Tour victories he has claimed and the small matter of becoming the first man in golfing history to end a year – last year – as the biggest money earner on both sides of the Pond. It was enough to earn him a MBE in the Queen’s Honours list last month.
Is this really how he feels? “Well, if in ten years’ time if I hang up my clubs without a single major to my name I’d be disappointed. Very disappointed. That’s what golfers are remembered for. Not how much money they make, or rankings. It’s all about the majors.”
The strange thing about Donald is that the natural mellowing of age, coupled with significant, recent personal events have helped mould him into a far better performer on the golf course, a fact he readily acknowledges.
He has two daughters, the second, Sophia, born last November just three days after the unexpected death of his father, Colin.
“Dad wasn’t well but nobody expected it to happen and it made it a tough few days for us all,” he recalls. “We were gearing up to the birth of our daughter and calling Mum and Dad to welcome Sophia into the world. Her birth helped me a lot to deal with Dad’s passing, and the kids, and what happened with Dad, have helped to place a great deal of perspective into my life.
“I’ve always tried to have other aspects to my life away from golf and be balanced, but of course it consumes you and for much of my career I’ve just tried too hard on the course and made too big a deal of bad rounds, or even bad shots. I think the life experiences I’ve dealt with have helped my personality on and off the course. I’m less stressed. I understand my priorities. It doesn’t meant to say that I use this as a flimsy excuse if I play poorly, but it doesn’t eat away at me any more. I’ve stopped beating myself up.”
That statement is almost true, save for the majors. Then, by his own admission, he returns to the old Luke, the nervous, self-doubting younger version who arrives at the Masters or the Open full of confidence, and departs, sometimes after two days, with his mentality shredded.
“I just go back into my shell,” he admits. “The longer it’s gone on the worse it’s got. I guess the first crucial step to putting it right is recognising the fact. I’ve only really come to terms with the fact that there has been a problem, and it’s not just down to the way it goes. It took me long enough to work out the right attitude for all the other tournaments on the tours let alone the majors. I guess you can say I’ve still got some work to do. But until I get to win one of these things the fact that I haven’t will never escape me. Others will make sure of it. So will I, for that matter.
“You see, I think about it a lot. I look at what I’ve achieved. I’ve won a lot of big golf tournaments. I clearly don’t have a problem with my mental strength when it comes to winning. My problem is that I place majors on a pedestal. That pedestal has to go.”
Donald has another stab at a major this week, and it is not just any major. The Open, which tees off on Thursday morning at Royal Lytham, has not been won by an Englishman since Faldo lifted the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 1992. It is an astonishing fact for a nation that currently sports the likes of Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Donald himself.
“I guess it would make it all the sweeter if I were to win, then,” is his smiling response. “There’s no rhyme or reason why none of us have won it. We’ve all played together and grown up in golf over the past ten years or so and it is just a matter of time. You’d think Lee, or Justin or Poults would fancy their chances at Lytham, but we’ve all been here before.
“In the past 15 majors 15 different golfers have won, which just goes to show that if it all falls into place over those four days you can win. It’s been an amazing run by the English but we must turn all that success into wins in the majors. I’m not alone in that respect, but I guess because I’ve been number one for so long there’s more focus on my failings than others. I’d very much like to put that right next week.”
Donald’s best Open moments, save for his tied 5th in 2009, have nothing to do with his own, albeit limited success. In his first, in 1999 at Carnoustie, he joined Phil Mickelson, Mark Calcavecchia and Billy Mayfair as a complete unknown for a practice foursome.
“There was a vacancy so I put my name down, strode up to the first tee and introduced myself. Phil was Phil. “Come on in, you can be my partner, I’ll cover for you.” I think we made some money that day.”
In 2005 he played alongside Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson when the Golden Bear played his final two rounds of his Open career. It just happened to be at St Andrew’s.
“I’ve never admitted this before but it wasn’t by chance I ended up with him and Watson,” Donald recalls. “Jack and I were both with RBS at the time. It wasn’t a blind draw.
They asked if I’d like to play with Jack. For a moment I wondered whether it would be a distraction but then I realised I had the chance to play with the greatest golfer of all time at the greatest course on his last round. The scenes going down the last few holes were amazing, I was a minor part in golfing history and it’s something I’ll never forget, Oh, and the other fellow playing that day was no slouch, was he?”
His memories of Lytham, having only ever played the course as an amateur, are scratchy. “What I know is that you need to stay away from the bunkers and play the game aggressively,” he says, before revealing that he is trying to not only change his mental approach to majors, but also his physical practice.
“I tend to practice different to others. A lot of the guys grind it out on the range. I tend to work harder on my short game. But I’ve realised that you can get away with the odd wayward drive in other tournaments because you can salvage it with a good chip or putt. In a major the margins for error are a lot smaller. I’m going to have to focus a lot more on my swing and that means grinding it out with the rest of them on the range.”
He will be doing it without his family for a change, too. His wife, Diane, and their daughters will remain in Chicago, a reminder of Donald’s other life.
It is here that he has thrown himself into two commendable causes, the First Tee Programme, where inner city kids are taught not only golf but, more importantly, life’s lessons through golf, and the Ronald McDonald House, where free houses are provided for parents to stay close to their serious ill children in hospital. “When you see the changes these make in people’s lives it is unbelievably fulfilling and shows that a lot of good away from golf can come out of what you’ve achieved in the sport.”
And whilst his interests in art and the piano have been placed on the back burner, Donald’s new passion is wine. “I have my own wine, two reds and a white marketed by a wine group in California, and I went to Napa to do all the blending,” he tells you. “My parents drank Bordeaux and I’d like to create something similar to that. The plan is to increase my knowledge.”
Perhaps, but this is secondary to his main plan in life, and that he has made abundantly clear.
“Do you want to know the ultimate dream?” he asks. “It’s to walk down the 18th with a lead in the Open with my kids in the gallery and to hit a great shot to seal a major,” he admits.
“Then I’d like my kids to think: “Daddy’s pretty good.””
Donald is already more than “pretty good.” But as far as he is concerned, only a major will turn good to great.
Another opportunity beckons in four days’ time. Only then will we know whether old or new Luke is playing.