Sports Illustrated – Luke Donald – By The Book

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By Alan Shipnuck

Once branded as a player whose inability to win symbolized what’s wrong with pro golf, Luke Donald is closing in on No. 1 thanks to an exhausting new regimen and a diary he keeps to motivate and challenge himself

Luke Donald Diary In Sports Illustrated

“Defy convention” —Diary entry of Luke Donald, dated April 6, 2011, on the eve of the Masters

It is a simple black binder, stuffed with a daily calendar the likes of which can be purchased for a couple of bucks. What makes the binder priceless is the hard-earned knowledge it contains and the self-belief that is etched onto the pages in tiny, tidy handwriting. Luke Donald calls it his performance diary. Every evening he writes down three goals for the next day. Some are specific—on Tuesday night of Masters week he scribbled “Win the Par-3 tournament,” which in fact he did the following afternoon. Some are aspirational, like “Show confidence in body language,” which he reminded himself to do in the middle of his spectacular run to victory at the Match Play Championship in February. Some are technical, such as when he riffed on a recent practice putting session on Saturday evening at the Heritage on Hilton Head, when he was the 54-hole leader: “More towards target on thru stroke, more acceleration to ball. Better strike kept better line.”

At day’s end Donald totals up how much time he spent working on his game and his fitness and writes down three conclusions, quantifying his work in statistics (22 putts for the final round of the Masters!) or observations (“Great driving, gritty comeback after double bogey on 2,” from Saturday at Hilton Head.) There is even room for a little gloating and the occasional touch of hyperbole. After winning the Masters Par-3, Donald wrote, “Set my mind to it and happened. One down one to go.”

Hogan dug the secrets of the game out of the dirt; Donald, 33, is using a ballpoint pen to maximize his performance. The diary has helped turn a 5′ 9″, 160-pound Englishman with a surgically repaired left wrist into arguably the best player in the world. Last year Donald ranked 177th in driving distance on the PGA Tour yet he piled up the second-most World Ranking points (behind only Graeme McDowell) as he finished third in the FedEx Cup standings and 15th in the Race to Dubai, banking more than $8.3 million worldwide. It was his first year working with self-styled performance coach Dave Alred. Donald had defied convention in seeking out Alred, who had virtually no background in golf but has worked closely with the English rugby team. (It was Donald’s brother-in-law, Robert Ellis, who recommended Alred, largely because both live in Bristol.) Donald’s stellar 2010 included another starring role at the Ryder Cup, but the season was not entirely satisfying for one simple reason: His only victory was at the B-list Madrid Masters.

Seeking that little edge that could turn more of his near misses into victories, Donald dropped out of sight for 11 weeks at season’s end to better himself. The game may be increasingly dominated by brawny power players, but Donald is comfortable as an iconoclast and a throwback; he spent the winter seeking more precision in his ball striking, not in his length off the tee. By his side was not a self-promoting swing guru but the only man Donald has ever entrusted with his game, his soft-spoken college coach, Pat Goss, who still oversees the program at Northwestern. (Donald married a Chicago girl, the former Diane Antonopoulos, and instead of residing in tropical environs, they spend eight or nine months a year in the Chicago suburb of Northfield, the rare Tour couple to settle in a Northern clime.)

Over the winter Donald also embraced a more dynamic fitness routine. His swing and body in tip-top shape, Donald was only missing a cutthroat mental edge. With his posh accent, his oft-noted hobby of painting, his own wine label, that precious Polo wardrobe and all those Sunday disappointments, Donald may have been characterized as being a little too soft. Alred began hectoring him to think of himself as an assassin. (This echoes the nickname of pint-sized mid-century hero Paul Runyan, one of golf’s great giant killers: Little Poison.) Says Alred, “What’s the mentality of the assassin? One shot, one kill. There’s a little bit of evil in him, but he’s ice-cold, calm and precise. It’s a perfect game face for Luke and his personality.”

Donald missed the cut in his 2011 debut but has been slaying the opposition ever since, with a current streak of six consecutive top 10 finishes. His breakthrough at the Match Play was followed by a rousing tie for fourth at the Masters and a scrappy playoff loss at Hilton Head, where Donald battled fiercely on Sunday despite struggling with his swing. Having ascended to third in the World Ranking he is a favorite at next week’s Players Championship, and based on his finish there are a handful of scenarios that could propel him to No. 1. Whenever he gets there—and it is increasingly a question of when, not if—the achievement will be all the more satisfying because Donald has achieved it in his own unique way.

“Love being great.” —APRIL 23, AS DONALD HELD THE 54-HOLE LEAD AT THE HERITAGE

He is the baby of the family. Back in England two Donald boys and a girl were born in a four-year span, but six years passed before Luke arrived, to a father, Colin, who was a free-spirited entrepreneur and his bride, Ann, a homemaker with eclectic interests and a ribald sense of humor. By then the family had settled in High Wycombe, a sleepy town (pop. 90,000) 30 miles west of London. Luke was a precocious, self-contained kid, an old soul with a patch of gray hair to prove it (“His nickname was Badger because of that shock of hair,” says boyhood friend Justin Rose. “I think it’s now covered up with a bit of dye.”) The Donald children were well-rounded; Luke played cricket and rugby but also sang in a choir and gravitated toward solo pursuits such as painting and playing the piano. Says his brother Christian, “He would come home from school and we’d say, How was your day? And he always said, ‘Not bad.’ You couldn’t get any more than that out of him. We’d scream at him to tell us something and he’d say, It was fine.’ That’s Luke. People have sometimes mistaken this for arrogance, but really he’s a little shy and he spends a lot of time in his own little world.”

Luke’s adolescence was largely defined by trying to keep up with his siblings, including on the golf course, where Christian was his earliest role model. “It wasn’t a competitive household,” Luke says, “but it was supportive. There was a lot of encouragement for whatever we did.” It says something about Luke and Christian that neither can remember the first time baby brother prevailed in a match.

By his mid-teens Donald had joined the English boys team, but he wasn’t exactly a can’t-miss-kid. Says Rose, “Growing up with Luke, he was not necessarily the guy that you’d think would go on to challenge for Number 1 in the world. There were a lot of other guys who had flashier games and that type of stuff. It’s been awesome to see how he’s knuckled down with his game and how dedicated he is and how he has gotten better every year.”

Donald wanted to test his game in the States, and because academics were important to him and cold weather wasn’t an issue, he matriculated to Northwestern, becoming maybe the only jock in the history of the Big Ten to choose art theory and practice as his major. (Always in search of a spectrum of experiences, he also partook in plenty of sloppy keggers after pledging Sigma Chi.) Donald struggled for a year to acclimate to the competition, but his sophomore season was one for the ages: He broke Tiger Woods’s record for season scoring average (70.45) and won the 1999 NCAA championship.

That summer Donald went 4–0 to lead Great Britain and Ireland to victory over the U.S. at the Walker Cup. Two more All-America campaigns followed, and Donald capped his Northwestern career by winning four straight tournaments in the spring of 2001. The real prize came a few weeks before graduation, when he met Diane while bar-hopping. (For those who believe in fate, on this night a proud Greek-American was wearing a tank top emblazoned with the Union Jack.) Diane was finishing her freshman year as a student of Northwestern’s acclaimed school of journalism, a background that would serve her well in critiquing her future hubby’s clippings. (“Apparently our wedding”—a splashy affair in Santorini, Greece—”is the reason Luke didn’t have a great season in 2007, at least according to the English press.”)

In 2002 the Donald boys arrived on Tour, with Christian caddying for his brother. They won the rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic, helping Luke earn more than $1 million as a rookie. His breakout year was ’04, when he had a pair of five-stroke victories in Europe and teamed with Paul Casey to take the World Cup. (All the while he was still living in Chicago and courting Diane as she finished her studies.) These days Donald is celebrated for one of golf’s premier short games, but his early success was built on ball striking accomplished with a swing of supreme grace and fluidity. “Back then he was only an average putter,” says Christian, “but he drove it very straight, and his iron play was quite precise.” After prevailing at the ’06 Honda Classic, Luke talked openly about coveting the No. 1 spot in the World Pranking, borderline blasphemy because Woods was still at the height of his pre-scandal dominance. By January ’07 Donald was up to seventh in the ranking, making him the top European, but chasing greatness had already begun to lead him astray.

“I thought to get to Number 1, I had to hit it farther,” says Donald, who in 2006 ranked 145th on Tour in driving distance at 283.7 yards a pop. “I got sucked into that. The guys who were winning were all driving it 300-plus yards off the tee. I tried to hit it harder, which affected my tempo and led to more flip [of the club] past impact. My swing got off-kilter.”

Donald struggled throughout 2007, failing to win on either side of the Atlantic. (On the bright side, he got lots of short-game practice while scrambling to salvage rounds.) Things went from bad to worse at the ’08 U.S. Open, where he shredded a tendon in his left wrist. He had season-ending surgery, which meant missing the Ryder Cup. (He had gone 5-1-1 in the previous two.) During the recovery time the Donalds enjoyed a vacation to Sardinia and innumerable trips to Wrigley Field. Unable to swing a club in anger, Donald continued to perfect his chipping and putting. But he also spent a lot of the downtime brooding. “It gave me time to reflect on some things I was doing wrong,” he says.

Donald was still playing his way back into shape when a final-round 67 lifted him into a tie for fifth at the 2009 British Open. What should have been the high point of his recovery was soured by a story that ran in The Telegraph a few days after the tournament. Barker Davis of The Washington Times, who was moonlighting for the English paper, called Donald “… the personification of what’s wrong with professional golf,” pointing to his paucity of victories while noting that Donald had, to that point, “collected over $15 million in prize money for such an indifferent effort.” A too-clever headline writer coined the phrase LUKE DONALD DISEASE OF UNDERACHIEVEMENT.

Donald was stung by the critique, even as he acknowledged that he’d like to have more tournament victories on his résumé. Says Goss, “The wrist injury was pretty scary—it forced Luke to face his mortality in the game. He did a lot of soul searching and I think his love for golf was rekindled. He came back dedicated to seeing how good he can be. And then the criticism that followed, well, that added more fuel to the fire.”

“Be big and show dominance.” —FEB. 23, ON THE EVE OF THE MATCH PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP

On a muggy April afternoon, two days before the Heritage was to begin, Donald stood in a Hilton Head gym and couldn’t quite swallow a smirk. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.

He was being put through his paces by trainers Ben Shear and Craig Knight, part of an ever-expanding team that has spent the last year and a half laboring to eradicate Donald’s eponymous disease. Since autumn 2009 Luke has replaced his brother as his caddie, hired the performance coach Alred, welcomed a daughter, tweaked his swing and signed on with Shear and Knight. He first worked with the trainers last November, when they subjected him to a series of diagnostic tests heavy on exotic, golfcentric exercises. Knight’s recollection of that first encounter: “Oooh, he flunked that, that, that and that.” Donald has been working out six days a week ever since, dutifully quantifying his progress in the black binder. Now it was time to show off for his trainers. Donald snapped off 50 push-ups, whereas five months earlier he had expired at 31. Shear set up a 10-inch step that Donald had to jump atop again and again for 90 seconds. In November he almost passed out after 38 jumps. This time he summited 85 times, his heart racing at up to 170 beats a minute. Donald grunted through more than a dozen other tests of his strength, stamina and flexibility, and his numbers skyrocketed.


Shear looked on like a proud papa. “He’s so much more flexible, stable and explosive,” he said. “We’re not trying to get into a long-driving contest with Dustin Johnson. This is about maximizing Luke’s potential.”

Donald has become noticeably more muscular, which inspired Jane Park, one of the LPGA’s sassier personalities, to recently tweet, “I never realized that Luke Donald had such a ghetto booty.” Beyond eliciting electronic catcalls, Donald’s fitness has helped his swing, as his trainers consult regularly with Goss to address any of Donald’s biomechanical needs. Beginning last winter Luke has successfully ingrained more width in his backswing, less bow in his left wrist at the top and a more proper sequence on the downswing, leading with his legs. “This is the best I’ve ever swung the club,” he says. “I’m longer now. That’s due to the gym work and more speed because my swing is more efficient.” Donald declines to estimate how many yards he has picked up but says, “I can see it compared to guys I’ve played with over the years.” Donald cut off his woofing with a self-conscious smile. “I’d still like to hit it farther, but I do believe now that what I have is good enough.”

This was never more evident than at the Match Play, as he never trailed in six matches while embracing his inner assassin. (From the performance diary that week: “Make everything—no mercy.”) Donald concedes that his first U.S. victory in five years “got a pretty big monkey off my back.” Just as impressive was his play at the Masters. Donald was three over par through 13 holes of the first round but still got into contention on Sunday despite a double bogey on the 12th hole. “I’ve always loved watching Luke at the Ryder Cup, because of the way he competes and the way he attacks the course,” says Goss, noting his pupil’s 8-2-1 record for three victorious European teams. “The Masters was the first stroke-play tournament where I saw that same spirit come out. He fought so hard all week.”

The signature moment of the new-and-improved Donald came on the 72nd hole, where his stellar approach shot from an awkward stance hard against a fairway bunker doinked the flagstick and spun off the green. He holed the ensuing chip for his sixth birdie in the final 11 holes and then uncorked the most demonstrative celebration of his career, a double fist pump that he concedes was “really dorky.” Says Donald, “I got carried away because it was a little bit of revenge. I said under my breath ‘F you’ to the flag. It goes back to the philosophy of one shot, one opportunity. In the end I beat the course.”

He brought the same intensity to the final round of the Heritage, at which a victory would have propelled him to No. 1 in the world. Donald kept tugging shots left at claustrophobic Harbour Town Golf Links but he stayed in the ball game with a series of improbable par saves, many of them from the sand. (“He’s the best bunker player I’ve ever seen,” says Stewart Cink. “I mean anybody.”)

Donald was gutted by the loss but that evening, as he cradled his diary, he was already able to see the bigger picture: “Consistently giving myself chance to succeed, getting better in all components.” Or, as Tour player Joe Ogilvie put it in a tweet, “Does anyone know where I can get the ‘Luke Donald disease’?”

“Great feeling of calm.” —APRIL 10, FOLLOWING THE FINAL ROUND OF THE MASTERS

If Donald seems more comfortable in his own skin these days a lot of that has to do with his daughter, Elle, a little charmer of 14 months. Even with the challenges of being new parents he and Diane still have a palpable opposites-attract chemistry; she’s a lively, funny extrovert who often finishes her hubby’s sentences (and sometimes starts them too). Says Christian, “He has life pretty much sorted. He seems more at peace with his place in the game, and having a baby has given him a much broader perspective. He definitely seems to have chilled out.”

The caddie change at the end of 2009 is part of that. “It was a slight shock when it happened, but it’s for the better,” Christian says. “The professional relationship was beginning to affect our personal relationship.” After parting ways with his brother, Christian landed Paul Casey’s coveted bag, and Luke says of his new looper, John McLaren, “He brings a different personality. He’s a little more chatty, he helps me stay a little more lighthearted on course.” This is a marked change for a player whom Henrik Stenson calls “proper British.”

Golf fans are getting their first glimpses of Donald’s winning smile, but he is actually a pretty fun character. With a little cajoling he can do a priceless imitation of dim-witted beefcake Brad Womack, the antihero of the most recent season of the TV guilty pleasure The Bachelor. Donald and a rotating cast of far-flung Tour pros that includes Tim Clark, Charley Hoffman and Carl Pettersson have been known to jack in to the Internet to compete against one another in the video game Mario Kart, the sound track to which is endless chirping among the boys by way of speakerphone. A couple of autumns ago the perfectionist Donald bought a leaf blower. Every day he would blow away mass quantities of leaves from the lawn of his home in Chicago. Every morning he would awaken and survey the endless number that had again fallen on his property. Acknowledging his place in the cosmos, he would mutter to Diane, “They’re taunting me.” He’s an English Premiere League obsessive with a particular passion for Tottenham, which he came by honestly: “Most of my mates growing up loved Arsenal, so I chose to back Tottenham simply to get up their noses.”

Donald maybe a little snotty with his pals, but he is also a serious philanthropist. At the Masters he quietly pledged $5,000 for every birdie to Japanese relief efforts. After his productive week he cut a check for $115,000. Donald has donated upwards of $250,000 to Northwestern, where a sparkling golf practice facility is named in his honor. Every autumn he returns to campus to host a fund-raising tournament for his former program, and every February he organizes a match between the current team and alumni at his winter base, the Bear’s Club in Palm Beach, Fla. Donald is keen to give back because he remains humbled by how far he has come. Says Diane, the former journalism student, “For a 10-year-old reading this story, what I’d like them to take away is that Luke proves anything is possible. He was just a kid who loved golf and loved playing with his brothers. He wasn’t a child prodigy whose parents obsessively pushed him. He had to find his own way. Most of the guys he plays against are bigger and hit the ball farther, but he’s Number 3 in the world. And it’s just from hard work and believing in himself. That’s it.”

In his little black binder Donald has been able to boil down his journey into a mere three words: “Believe. Trust. Dominate.”


Sports Illustrated