ANDALUCIA, SPAIN | When Tiger Woods was asked to identify the European with the best chance in the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, he opted for Luke Donald – and backed up his suggestion with a less-than-obviously flattering, “Luke has a great chance the way he plods along.”
True, Donald’s golf was – and still is – more about consistency than anything else but, today, his peers could not be more in awe of the player if he were thrashing the ball 300 yards off every tee.
“He impressed the hell out of me,” said Graeme McDowell, going back to the practice round they played in advance of last year’s Ryder Cup.
Rory McIlroy, as he practised at Finca Cortesin last week, responded to a question about the new world No. 2’s form with a disbelieving chuckle.
“Did you see the shot he threaded through that gap at the ninth at The Players?” he queried. “It was unbelievable. It was the same at the Ryder Cup. You don’t get much of a chance to watch your teammates but I saw quite a bit of him as he played Jim Furyk and he was knocking all his irons down the stick.
“What I so admire about Luke,” continued the Ulsterman, “is the patience and perseverance he showed in coming back from his wrist injury of 2008. That and the fact that he knows his strengths. He is not the longest hitter but he has never been ‘obsessed’ with getting longer. He’s managed to add some extra yards without losing his nicely balanced finish.”
Donald, who never went beyond the 17th in winning this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, suspects that people have tended to think he is shorter than he actually is because of his height (5-foot-9).
“I don’t think,” he said, “that my peers would use the word ‘short.’ I’m plenty long enough and I’m working on it.”
He has an exercise that helps, a once-a-week affair which involves hitting 10 balls with a driver 15-percent heavier than the norm, 10 with a driver which is 15-percent lighter – and 10 with his own club.
“It’s only one part of the equation but it definitely makes the muscles faster,” he explained. In the course of last year, his swing speed rose from 158 mph to 163, while he is currently driving around 270 yards.
Though he is not, as McIlroy says, obsessed with hitting further, he can still be a tad defensive when the subject of his length, or relative lack of it, comes up.
For example, after Martin Kaymer said last week that if you were to invent the optimum golfer, he would have Lee Westwood’s long game and Donald’s short game, Donald hit back smartly with the line, “I’m hitting it pretty good off the tee right now.”
Then, he laughed at himself and switched to taking the positives out of Kaymer’s remark. “Lee and I would be a good combination,” he agreed, cheerfully. “We kind of showed that in the Ryder Cup.” For the record, the two of them defeated Woods and Steve Stricker by 6 and 5 in the third-session of foursomes.
The all-round Donald package has benefited, hugely, from the input of Dave Alred, the rugby-player-turned-performance-coach who taught
England’s Johnny Wilkinson to make the most seemingly impossible of goal-kicks.
Pat Goss, Donald’s long-term technical man and college coach at Northwestern University, rightly felt that Alred would be the man to help his player to make the most of his potential, not least through harnessing his organisational skills.
For the past two years, Alred has encouraged Donald to put pressure on himself in his practice sessions, to do everything he can to make them mirror ‘the real thing.”
If he is practising his wedge play, he has to take note of how many shots from the 70- to 110-yard range land within a six-foot hoop he places around the hole. In the last few months, a period in which he has finished in the top 10 in 13 of his 14 starts, he has enjoyed a success rate of 50 percent.
Moving on to the putting green, he must monitor his progress with a daily exercise in which he arranges five putts of four, five, six, seven and eight feet around four different holes. Here, he expects to report back to Alred that he has made a minimum of 17 out of the 20.
Donald used to work with Jim Fannin on the mental side of the game. Today, he believes that the kind of deep-seated confidence he is accruing through charting his progress with Alred is the better way ahead.
There is an Alred saying which appeals to him above any other – that if you want to hit a barn door 1,000 times out of 1,000, you don’t aim for the door, you aim for the keyhole.
Donald is not just raining balls on that keyhole. He is practically hitting through it.
It will be interesting to hear what Tiger has to say about him before this year’s U.S. Open.