Countdown to the Masters: Donald confident that mind games can make him a master of his sport

Young Briton turns to psychology and a 'five-second rule' to reach summit. He tells James Corrigan why it will work
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The Independent Online

Luke Donald finished 10th in Atlanta on Sunday night. Not a bad little warm-up for Augusta this week. Except Donald no longer does 10th. And he no longer does "not bad". Donald only does first now. And he only does "not second". Now if he could only make himself believe all that claptrap...

He was certainly attempting to in Florida a few weeks ago as the season was taking on its serious look and Donald was trying to out-stare it. The British golf press, many of whom had not seen him since the back end of last year, were stunned by the transformation of this sensible young man from Hertfordshire. Where once he struggled to say boo to a Goosen, never mind a Tiger, now he was brazenly challenging the world No 1's divine right to his title, just as he was recounting stories about giving some old codger called Arnold Palmer the brush-off. If you did not know he came from a nice family in High Wycombe you might have suspected he was the product of a rather obnoxious one from Beverly Hills. "I am a winner," he screamed, not altogether tastefully.

Blessedly, it was revealed to be all a bit of a front. Luke is not a cool hand and never will be. He gave himself away in a quiet corner. "Look this confidence isn't natural, definitely not. I've had to work on it," he said, spotting the concern. "It's just that I have to keep training my subconsciousness to believe that I can be the best. You know, it's very easy to be content with top 10 and all that and I'm just trying to programme my mind that only No 1 is acceptable. It isn't totally programmed yet, but it's starting to get there."

Many might have thought Donald was already there. Having assembled more money than a 28-year-old should really know what to do with (even a former art student with half an eye for the modern stuff), Donald added some glory to the greenback when he won the Honda Classic three weeks ago and so moved into the world top 10. Cue champagne, cue celebrations. Cue a simple shrug of relief. "There's more to come," he promised. "That'll just be the spark."

So where is the fire, then? Obviously, in the glaring heat of the major arenas such as Augusta. And it is also fairly clear what is burning inside Donald. "Do you know that Britain, Europe, hasn't had a major winner this century yet?" he asked, rhetorically, with all present perfectly aware of the infamy of the seven-year, 25-major gap back to Paul Lawrie's Open in 1999. "That's disappointing. But I honestly think that all its going to take is someone to break out and win one and then those floodgates will burst open. That's all that needs to happen. I'm hoping to be that guy."

For "hoping" read "expecting". Jim Fannin would insist on it. The "peak mental performance teacher" from Donald's adopted home city of Chicago has had some effect on his star golfing pupil, but then he has had some effect on any number of star pupils including the highest-paid sportsman in the world, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees (salary: £18m per annum). The former tennis pro is behind Donald's mind-programming and hence his reinvention.

"The biggest single factor what makes me a different person to the one I was a year ago is just my self-belief," said Donald. "Jim's really helped me realise that you have to kind of set your goals a little bit higher than you really think. You have to kind of think abnormally if you want to have abnormal results. In other words if you start believing you can be the best player, instead of just being satisfied with being in the top 10, then it will slowly happen."

Indeed, "slowly" seemed the correct word as Donald marched out of Sawgrass a few days later after missing the Players Championship cut and so dismally failing to build on his runner-up place of the previous year. There was a touch of influenza to blame, but the new, "no excuses" Donald was as heavy of heart as he was runny of nose and was having to repeat one of Fannin's principal mantras. "Pretend it didn't happen," went the voice inside his head. "Think ahead to your next target." Donald's next target was the BellSouth Classic and his vastly improved showing there at least meant arriving here at the Masters yesterday with a swagger to go with the sniffle.

"One of Jim's things is called a five-second rule," said Donald, outlining one of his guru's techniques that was to prove so valuable 48 hours later. "For five seconds after every shot you have to keep telling yourself positives and that's why I hold my follow-through for so long. With a lot of players when they hit a shot and know it's off line, their shoulders slump. Jim thinks this seemingly irrelevant time is very important. No matter what shot you hit, you have to be very positive, tell yourself you're a great player and all that stuff. It all ties in with the belief thing and something I've had to change to improve."

It is not the only thing. Together with his long-time girlfriend, Diane Antonopoulos, Donald has migrated south for the winter and has bought a second home in Florida. "I love Chicago, but their cold snaps are hard on you," he said. "Having to wake up and put three or four layers on. I've found that being in Florida it's very relaxing to wake up in 80 degrees, put my shorts on and have breakfast out in the sun. It gets me in a good temperament to approach the day. I do miss Chicago, though. I met Diane there and that's where I'm comfortable. It was for the good of my game, but was a hard choice."

Donald is lying - he has always found it easy to prioritise golf over comfort. As an 18-year-old, when it would have been far more straightforward to stay in England than go to university in Illinois and then, 10 years later, when Palmer, the four-times Masters-winning golfing god, phoned Donald on his mobile straight after last month's watershed PGA Tour victory and asked him to play at his own event the following week. Donald courteously declined. It might have suited Arnie, but it did not suit Luke. Look after No 1. Or, in his case, he who would be No 1.

A position a couple of places higher than his Augusta debut would kick-start the process. Finishing third last year surprised a lot of experts who were not convinced about this medium-hitter's suitability to the National. Donald is nonplussed. "I only have to convince myself," he said. "And I'm starting to. The Honda helped me because my only win on the American Tour before was a 54-hole rain-out. I knew I had the ability but it was kind of proving it to myself that mattered. You know when I came to college over here, it took a while to get my first win. But as soon as I did, they came frequently and often. I'm hoping that will correlate to my professional record, as well."

For "hoping" read "expecting". Jim Fannin would insist on it. So would Luke Donald. He might even make it sound convincing.

Olazabal at a loss to explain Europe's lack of winners

Jose Maria Olazabal, the last European to win the Masters way back at the end of the last century, insisted here at Augusta yesterday that the seven-year barren spell is about to end. "Don't worry," the twice winner said. "It's tough, but it will happen."

Not since Paul Lawrie crept through the carnage of Carnoustie in 1999 has a European come through in a major. Why? Just like everyone else who has surveyed the recent Ryder Cup results, Olazabal is mystified.

"Lee [Westwood] is playing well, Luke [Donald] is playing well, Sergio [Garcia] of course," said Olazabal. "The list goes on and on. A lot of our guys have been close to winning one, or at least battling for one. What must be remembered though, is that with Tiger [Woods] and the rest of the Big Five around, it's so difficult to win a major. It's just a matter of having the right week at the right time. There's no need to panic."

Nevertheless, with a stretch that is the worst for three decades (there was a nine-year gap between Tony Jacklin's US Open in 1970 and Seve Ballesteros's first Open at Lytham) the frustration is palpable.