As the Justin Rose collection grows, so does the conviction of Luke Donald that he was right to opt for swing retooling to bolster a game that had run its course. Donald was good enough to get to world No 1, but as the saying goes, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. And though majors do not always deliver the best player, a world No 1 without one is not worth the bother in the eye of the purist.
It was watching Rose thread the ball through the Merion needle to lift the US Open a year ago that persuaded Donald he needed to deconstruct his swing and rebuild in order to make the ultimate step. After the fortnight Rose has just had, claiming the Quicken Loans Trophy on the PGA Tour and the Scottish Open last Sunday, the big idea has lost none of its power.
“I think I’m about 90 per cent of the way there,” Donald says. “People said it would take about a year and the US PGA will be a year. It’s like coming back from an injury – you don’t quite commit to some of the shots because you don’t quite trust it. That’s how I’ve been with some of my first rounds. I’ve always come back after bad starts and played a good Friday round but I need to go out there and be a bit more assertive. I need to think about making birdies and playing great.”
Donald was speaking last week at the Scottish Open, where he kept pace with Rose for two days at least, book-ending his tournament with a 67 and 66. Friday and Saturday were not the best but there was encouragement in the run to the tape and the six-under-par finish.
“The danger of making changes is that there is going to be that period of time where you don’t feel that comfortable over the shot. When I’m playing friendlies at my club it feels very natural, but it takes continued practice and continually putting yourself in those positions to trust it under the gun. If I’m feeling in control of my game it doesn’t matter which tournament I’m playing, I’m going to have a chance. It’s about having that belief again and trusting your swing.”
Donald, 36, has stood back from the idea of gaining length off the tee in favour of adding shape to his shots to cope better in all conditions, particularly holding the ball against a right-to-left wind. His short game remains imperious and any player on tour would take his putting stroke. The Open has not been kind to him, but in recent years, if he makes the cut he makes the top 10. And if his CV is to be embellished by only one major bauble it would have to be this.
“Chuck [Cook, his coach] said to me that Royal Liverpool isn’t too dissimilar to a Hilton Head or a Tampa – places I play well. It’s reasonably narrow, you have to get it between the bunkers and play strategic golf. If I can think of it in that way then hopefully I can have some success.
“For me the Claret Jug is on the top of the pile. Growing up, it was what I watched. I watched the Masters as well but my two heroes, Seve and Faldo, were pretty good at winning Open Championships. The Masters is hyped up through television and it seems to be the most popular major with the look of it and everything that goes with it, but there is nothing like the great grandstands around 18 at an Open Championship. I would love to win a Claret Jug.”
God loves a trier, and Donald is the grafter-plus, nursing a pathological work ethic that even drives him mad sometimes.
“It has tapered down a little since I have had three kids. I have had to be a bit more efficient. It used to be I would get up at 7am and go to the gym for an hour and a half and then breakfast and then out on the course from 10 till 5 or 6pm. I certainly work hard at it. I want to succeed as much as I can. I am one of those players who feels if I don’t work it, then I am not going to get my full potential out of it.
“Some people I know hardly practice at all. Bubba [Watson], I don’t think he ever practices. He goes to the course and plays 18 holes. He is a feel player – that is just the way he works. But not everyone can hit it 350 [yards] off the tee and have that big advantage.”
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Donald is grouped on Thursday in a marquee three-ball alongside Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler, another emerging from swing rehab after a rebuild with Tiger Woods’ former guru Butch Harmon. Fowler, unlike Donald, is not one for overthinking things, a feature the Englishman feels has probably hindered his prospects in the past.
“I probably cared too much,” Donald says. “Especially around the world No 1 period. Your expectations for doing well are so high they begin to impact on results. Now I don’t think there is anything holding me back. Once the changes have bedded in properly and confidence starts to come back, which is already happening, there is no reason why I can’t have a great next five years or so.”