Donaldson fast developing a winning habit

Faces to follow in 2002: Welshman earns Tour card from a limited number of starts to confirm his promise
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On his 26th birthday, Jamie Donaldson played in a round on the Old Course in the company of the Ryder Cup player Andrew Coltart, the England cricket captain Nasser Hussain and the former Scottish rugby captain Gavin Hastings. The man with the lowest profile had comfortably the lowest score, a six-under-par 66. It will perhaps be one of the more memorable birthdays for the Welshman from Macclesfield.

The round took place during the Dunhill Links Championship, where the pros all played with an amateur partner. Hussain, between engagements in Zimbabwe and India, had no hesitation in accepting the sponsor's invitation to their festival of golf, or the spot-the-celebrity-in-the-woolly-hat competition, as it turned out to be over five chilly, foggy and wet days at St Andrews, Kingsbarns and Carnoustie.

While some players paired up with family members or friends, not everyone got who they wanted to play with. Colin Montgomerie thought he was going to partner Hastings but at the pre-tournament party was drawn with Wayne Huizenga, the owner of Blockbuster, whose private jet had been filled to bursting on the journey over from the States.

Hussain said he had to pinch himself upon sharing a breakfast table with the likes of Michael Douglas and Hugh Grant. But he was left mystified when he was drawn with Donaldson. "To be honest," Hussain revealed, "I thought: 'Jamie who?'"

A 14-handicap golfer, Hussain knows enough about top-class sport to recognise talent when he sees it. Though thinking he was on holiday for the week from his usual media obligations, Hussain was happy to talk about his partner when Donaldson's 66 meant a visit to the press centre was required. "I very quickly realised I was playing with a seriously good golfer," was the Hussain verdict. "He is definitely one for the future, without a doubt."

Donaldson knew exactly who Hussain was. "He was a bit of a streaky player but we gelled very well together," he said. "He's a great guy and we had a lot of fun. He had a couple of blobs but then threw in a few par-net-brides so it worked out brilliantly."

Donaldson and Hussain finished fourth in the team event, three strokes behind the winners but, as well as being good fun, the event was also serious business for the rookie golf professional. He tied for ninth place in the individual tournament, earning a cheque for £64,471 – more than he earned all season on the Challenge Tour – and securing his European Tour card for 2002.

But Donaldson's debut season was far more than just one good week. Having failed to get past the second stage of the Qualifying School after turning professional in the autumn of 2000, the Welsh international had started the year without a card of any description.

But having started the season playing a few Challenge Tour events on invitations arranged by his agents at the International Management Group, Donaldson went on to finish second on the junior circuit and so would have earned an upgrade to the main tour in any case. "It's been a big year," Donaldson said. "My game has developed massively. It has come on in leaps and bounds.

"It was all a bit of a blur at the start because I didn't have a category after missing out at the Qualifying School," he added. "I was given a limited number of starts but I thought if I played well I could get my card comfortably as long as I played my own game and it worked out well."

Some high finishes in those first few tournaments led to more opportunities and he ended up winning twice, at the Russian Open in Moscow and the Telia Grand Prix in Stockholm. On a circuit where it is notoriously difficult to make money, Donaldson finished with £57,662 from 18 events, just over £3,000 behind the order of merit winner Mark Foster.

The Challenge Tour is considered a good grounding for the main circuit but Donaldson has already shown he can step up his game in the seven tournaments he played on the main circuit. He earned £121,555 and finished 96th on the order of merit, comfortably inside the top-115 who automatically keep their cards for the following season.

While the Dunhill was his most lucrative week, Donaldson's best result was his fourth-place finish at the Wales Open at Celtic Manor, a stroke outside the play-off at an event curtailed to 36 holes by bad weather. If gaining a Tour card twice over is rare, so is earning one from only a limited number of starts. Paul Casey managed it last summer (before winning the Scottish PGA) and Adam Scott the year before.

Though without a high-profile amateur career, the result of just missing out on a Walker Cup place in 1999 and not waiting around for the 2001 match, Donaldson belongs to the talented group of young players who have recently turned professional, headed by the English trio of Casey, Luke Donald and Nick Dougherty.

The Welsh Amateur champion in 1997, Donaldson turned professional after a 2000 season in which he won the Welsh Strokeplay, the Duncan Putter and the Aberconwy Trophy, by 14 strokes and for the third year running. He does not intend to let the winning habit stop now that he is on the Tour full-time.