Golf: Donald on big game trail

Tim Glover talks to a Briton following the US route to the top; `You can't fail to improve in America - the courses are unbelievable'
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The Independent Online
LUKE DONALD says, more with pride than conceit, that he has a claim to fame. "I have never lost to Sergio Garcia." The membership of that particular club is dwindling by the week.

The regular tour pros must be feeling their age. First, Tiger Woods walks straight out of college and not only starts shredding the record books, but hits the ball further than Alan Shepard on the moon (600 yards). Then there was the Justin Rose show at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago when the boy from Hook in Hampshire came within a couple of strokes of winning The Open (as a 17-year-old amateur for goodness sake) and now Garcia, the latest teenage sensation, is making the scoring of birdies look effortless, which it most certainly is not.

Professional golf, as performed in the solar system, is not meant to be child's play. There is an apprenticeship to be learned first and a time-honoured path to the accumulation of wisdom and experience. No sooner had Rose chipped in for a sensational climax to last year's Open, than he had turned professional and everybody knows what happened next. Nothing. Nothing, that is, except for missed cut after missed cut.

"It's a shame," Donald said. "There's no doubt that Justin is going to be a great player. There was always the temptation to turn pro, especially after such a finish. It would be easy now to say he made the wrong decision. Amateur golf is relatively secluded. You just play. When you turn pro there are other pressures. I am sure it's just a mental problem with Justin. He might have benefited from a few years on the American college scene. He's learnt the hard way but he is very young."

At 21, Donald is not exactly in his dotage. Last year he watched the heroics of Rose, an England team-mate, on TV at home in High Wycombe. Rose, of course, is exempt from qualifying but today and tomorrow Donald will attempt to play in his first Open, via final qualifying at Panmure.

Apart from putting one over on Garcia, he has other substantial claims to fame. As a member of the victorious GB and Ireland team in the Eisenhower Trophy (the world amateur team championship) in Chile he was exempt from regional qualifying.

Even that achievement was overshadowed by his exploits in America. The US college system is hugely competitive, yet Donald not only won the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, he did the unthinkable - he beat Tiger's record. Donald headed all three sets of ranking points on the collegiate circuit and his stroke average of 70.45 for the year eclipsed the previous best of 70.61 set by Woods three years ago. The crowning glory was the NCAA title, the Blue Riband, which he won last month at Hazeltine, the course where Tony Jacklin took the US Open in 1970.

Donald has won a cupboard full of honours, including the Fred Haskins Award as college golf's outstanding player. Haskins, who was born in Hoylake, was the pro for 34 years at the Country Club of Columbus in Georgia. Donald is not only the first Englishman to be so honoured, but is also the first sophomore to win the award since Phil Mickelson in 1990.

So how did Luke become such a cool hand? "It was kind of a fluke," he said, betraying signs of the Americanisation of his accent. "My father bought a timeshare in La Manga in Spain. Part of the deal was free access to sport. There were two golf courses and I fell in love with the game."

Luke was eight. A pupil at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, he spent a lot of his spare time at Hazelmere GC before hogging the practice facilities at Beaconsfield. He won the club championship at 14 and 16. At 17 he was in the full England side, which identified him as one of the top amateurs in the country.

He never had formal lessons until he went to America. "I wanted to continue my education and play golf. I joined a scheme called College Prospects of America who sent out your cv. The plan was to get a scholarship at Stanford but I didn't get in. Had I gone there, Tiger and I might have been team-mates."

Donald was accepted at NorthWestern University in Chicago. He studies liberal arts in the morning and practises and plays golf in the afternoon under the tutelage of a highly rated young coach, Pat Goss. Donald's official handicap is plus 2.5, although he thinks in America he is playing to plus six. He has been at NorthWestern for two years and intends to fulfil his four-year scholarship before turning professional at 23. "You can't fail to improve over there. I'd like to try the US Tour. The courses are unbelievable. The greens are perfect... they're like this."

He ran his hand over the top of a table on the terrace at Beaconsfield where, it has to be said, the practice putting green looked immaculate. None of the members paid him any attention, even though he was wearing his purple NorthWestern Wildcats shirt. In a few years, they might realise that Beaconsfield has a model professional as well as a model village.

In America his exploits have already earned him the attention of IMG and invitations to events on the US Tour. But first there is qualifying for The Open and a seven-hour drive to Carnoustie in his Volkswagen Golf. At Panmure he will carry his own bag, but if he qualifies his brother Christian, a club pro at Harleyford, near Marlow, will probably caddie for him.

While Donald seems sure to play in the Walker Cup against the US at Nairn in September, Garcia has equal claims for a place in the Ryder Cup match near Boston. "There's something magical about him," Donald said of Sergio.

OK, let's hear the claim to fame. In the European Boys' Team Championship at Woodhall Spa four years ago, the English prodigy beat the Spaniard two and one and a couple of years ago in a senior international between Spain and England, their match was halved. Garcia thought he had home advantage, but it was La Manga.

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