How Wilkinson's kicking coach is helping Donald hit the greens again
Mentor behind Jonny's Rugby World Cup win has now transformed the golfer's game
Thursday 15 July 2010
It is time for the English to conquer the world again, they say, time for the young golfers of Albion to stand up and redress an Open void which now stands at 18 years. But where to go for the inspiration?
To Sir Nick Faldo perhaps, the last countryman to lift the Claret Jug? Justin Rose and Ian Poulter certainly see the value of his experience, regularly dining with the six-times major winner to pick up tasty titbits. However, our Nick never has been to everyone's taste.
Well, how about looking further afield, out of the country club gates and on to the pitches of England's last great sporting glory? How about to Jonny Wilkinson and that boot which conquered the world? How about applying his disciplined regime to a pursuit which requires the mental side to back up the physical side more than any other? Luke Donald is doing just that and here this week he and the coach who gave Wilko his radar, Dave Alred, have been hard at it on the practice green. The similarities are obvious. Repeated kicks at the uprights; repeated strokes at the hole. The connection was waiting to happen.
"My brother-in-law lives in Bristol and is a big rugby fan and saw Dave at the gym a few times," says Donald, explaining how the partnership was first forged. "We thought we would give it a try from a different angle, so in January we started working together. He's not a traditional sports psychologist; he's more of a performance guy."
Alred first became involved in golf as part of what has become labelled "The Melissa Reid Experiment". Sir Clive Woodward formed a team around the English starlet to give a non-Olympian the Olympic back-up. The experiment was not a success and Reid now plots a more traditional path to the top. The failing with that project, however, has been accepted to have been more to do with the size of the entourage than the identities. Thus Alred has been given the opportunity to prove that his philosophy can cross the sporting spectrum.
"It's nothing to do with goal- kicking, really," explains Donald. "We try to look at ways of making my practice more efficient and at ways of practising more under pressure, rather than going through the routine of just hitting balls and not thinking about it. We are trying to make it a bit more front-footed. Dave doesn't want me out there for hours and hours, but he wants to look at every part of my game and do as much as I can to maximise my game. It is hard to quantify but if you look at my results it seems to be working."
Indeed it does. In the six months they have been together, Donald has moved up from outside the world's top 30 to recrack the top 10. In May, he lifted his first trophy in two years, his success in Madrid capping a three-week stretch in Europe which also saw him finish second at Wentworth and third in Wales. After 18 months or so, during which a wrist injury led to a frustrating time of inactivity and then mediocrity, Donald has begun to look like Donald again. There has always been a touch of the Jonny about Luke – the modest approach to both fame and expectation. Certainly, rugby's comeback man would be impressed with the Donald resurgence.
"I haven't met Jonny but I admire his work ethic," says the 32-year-old. "I don't watch a lot of rugby, living in the US, but I went to a rugby school in High Wycombe. I played until I was 14 but I kept getting injured so I gave it up. I was an inside centre. Kept getting beaten up. It's a tough game."
As is golf, particularly when the cold bites, the rain hurts and the wind destroys as it did here yesterday. These were ominous portents for Donald as he and the Open have endured something of an unsettling history. He missed his first five cuts in the oldest major and the next three only brought placings among the dead men. But then came Turnberry and so came a ray of direction at the course with the lighthouse.
"I did miss a lot of Open cuts but, after struggling for a number of years, I finished fifth last year, which was an important step for me," he says. "I am moving in the right direction. I played some links golf in preparation last year so, hopefully, doing the same again this year will help."
Donald took the old Tiger Woods route of playing around the links of Ireland. Together with a group of friends, which included Christian, his brother and former caddie, Donald went on a tour that featured Ballybunion. "The weather was a bit iffy but that might be useful this week," he says. "My form is pretty good and I have had some success around here. Sometimes bombing it can help at the Old Course, but it's not a super-long golf course and there are enough holes here where I will be hitting short irons in where I feel I can make plenty of birdies."
His lack of length is one of the reasons why Donald has managed to enjoy such a quiet build-up here this week. It is incredible to think that an Englishman ranked No 7 in the world can escape the focus, but then these are incredible times for English golf. Four players in the top 10 and a player called Justin Rose just outside it who has been chosen to partner Woods today.
"Justin deserves all the attention he has been getting here," says Donald. "Out of the English guys he's the one most in form. He's won two of his last three events in the US and should have won all three. He's playing great. But I'm sure the attention will come my way if I start well." As Wilko would confirm, the spotlight is an unavoidable evil.
The guru: Alred's CV
Dave Alred, one of the most successful kicking coaches in modern sport, has lead the way in ground-breaking research on skills acquisition.
Cutting his teeth as a junior assistant coach with the England rugby union side from 1995, he first made a name for himself during the victorious Lions tour of South Africa in 1997. The PhD. graduate helped with the kicking styles and mental stamina of Matt Dawson, Charlie Hodgson and Jonny Wilkinson, pushing all three into the top 10 points-scorers for England.
After mastering kicking in one sport, he moved on to football, working with Premier League clubs Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Sunderland, and advising the England goalkeeper David James. This, along with his involvement in other sports, brought him an MBE in 2004. It is hardly surprising that he is now expected to revolutionise Luke Donald's approach to golf with his detailed focus on "mental preparation".
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