Donald beats his 'disease'
A couple of years back, an American journalist coined the term "Luke Donald Disease", meant as an ever-so-clever dig at what he saw as an under-achieving, gravy-train riding crop of British golfers. "Thanks for the cameo, thanks for the cheque," he wrote after watching Donald secure a top-five finish in the Open at Turnberry, "now back to the States for more of the same."
What, I wondered, did Donald have to say about that journalist now? "I don't think he writes about golf any more," the phlegmatic Englishman replied. "He got out of the job, because he wasn't doing a great one..."
Since those ill-chosen words made it to print, there have been seven different British winners on the US PGA Tour. One of them Donald. Oh, and five of the world's top 10 are British. Again, one of them Donald, currently at number four.
"It was an un-researched and very poorly written article," says the 33-year-old, winner of the WGC Match Play in Tucson in February, his first win in the States since 2006, and one of the world's hottest golfers heading into the Masters this week.
"My first couple of years on tour I was just trying to make enough money to stay on tour, money was an issue. But this is my 10th season, and the only thing I'm thinking about is picking up trophies."
Donald with his wife Diane and daughter Elle after winning the WGC Match Play. Photo: Getty
While Donald is able to joke about it now, the accusation of a lack of ambition still rankles. A player lacking in ambition does not decide to disassemble and rebuild a perfectly workable swing, as Donald did a few years ago. And a player lacking in ambition does not go hunting outside the box and hire Jonny Wilkinson's kicking guru, Dave Alred, whose stated aim was to transform Donald into an "assassin".
And an assassin Donald has become. On the course, at least. Last May he won his first title in two years in Madrid, sandwiched between a second place in the PGA Championship and third in the Wales Open. There were also five top-three finishes in the States last year, as well as a starring role in Europe's stirring Ryder Cup victory in Wales.
Then came that victory in Tucson, his first in a World Golf Championships event. As he said at the time, "the monkey is off my back".
"For a number of years I've been in the world's top 20, been a good player in the Ryder Cup, been very consistent throughout," says Donald, "but I hadn't won a tournament for five years in the US. It was disappointing for my fans, but more so for me. So it was nice to win again and know all that hard work I'd been putting in had paid off."
Hard work - and perspective. "It's hard to tell whether having my first baby [last February] has led to an improvement in my game," he says, "but it certainly looks that way. Suddenly the bad days on the golf course become less important: you forget about them quicker when you come home to a smiling little baby."
As well as having had his name given to a disease, Donald is also supposed to be a little bit boring. You've heard the bloke down the pub, the one who is probably a little bit boring: "That Donald, he's like all modern golfers, dull as dishwater, faceless like all the rest."
Donald's best finish at Augusta was third on debut in 2005. Photo: Getty
So you might be surprised to learn Donald has his own wine label, serving up "Bordeaux-style red" from the Napa Valley, as well as a cheeky Chardonnay. The Hemel Hempstead native, an art major at college in Chicago, also paints when he finds the time, which, he admits, is not too often. But I'd wager that's two more hobbies than the bloke down the pub has got. Plus, Donald is miles better at golf.
Still, kids, hobbies and kicking gurus are all well and good, but there is no real substitute for experience. To this end Donald took the decision to take three weeks off before the Masters, snapping a run which began in Tucson and took in two top-10 finishes at the Honda Classic and the Cadillac at Doral.
"There's always a slight risk [taking a break when you are in form] but I looked at my schedule at the start of the year and I tend to not do too well if I play more than four in a row," says Donald, whose aim is to peak for the majors four times a year.
"So I didn't play Tampa and I don't have a great record at Bay Hill [where Scot Martin Laird won last week]. I'd rather go into Augusta high in confidence than play an event where I didn't feel comfortable on the golf course."
Anyone who had an early bet on Donald placing at the Masters need not panic, he hasn't been at home in Jupiter, Florida with his feet up. Rather, he has been attempting to tailor his game for Augusta National and fitted in a two-day recce of the course before arriving in Georgia this week.
While Donald has been focusing on shaping his shots right to left, which favours a lot of holes at Augusta, one thing he has not been doing is attempting to hit the cover off the ball. That was a trap he fell into a few years back, sick of seeing his rivals bomb their tee shots 50 yards past his, and it almost derailed his game.
"My coach [Pat Goss, who is with his charge in Augusta] has always told me to concentrate on making the rest of my game better than everyone else rather than trying to hit it harder," says Donald. "He never thought I was too short to compete.
"I've worked hard with Pat on a lot of different aspects of the game and I don't think many people have been able to rival me around the greens over the last few years. Driving it long is great, but you still have to get the ball in the hole."
Donald has been getting the ball in the hole in fewer shots than most of late, which means all eyes will be on him when he tees off on Thursday. But, quoting the great Billie Jean King, Donald insists the "pressure is a privilege".
"It's natural if you're playing well that there are going to be more eyes on you, but that's fine, that's a good thing," says Donald, who is playing in his seventh Masters this week.
"I always go to events believing I'm good enough to win. It's a tournament where I've made a bunch of birdies, made eagles, I know how to get around the course. I'm looking forward to the challenge." Luke Donald disease? That would be all about winning.