22.09.2022
Luke Donald on the daunting challenge of captaining Europe’s Ryder Cup team

One of the workers of a sporting miracle is recalling the madness of a simpler time. It’s all there and clear in his memories, details of the absurd and mundane in a comeback for the ages.

A decade ago this month? It could have been yesterday. And so Luke Donald is smiling his way through thoughts of an extraordinary weekend.

‘I can’t believe it’s been so long,’ he says. ‘Even now it is nice to just sit and think about Medinah every so often.’

That was always his style — a thinker more than a shouter, except for the time he wasn’t, when he stood on a bench that Sunday night and belted out songs with champagne-soaked hair.

‘It can make extroverts of anyone — that’s the brilliance of the Ryder Cup,’ he says, and isn’t it just? But you do wonder about it all and that is why we are here, talking about one of sport’s great gatherings and how much might now be changing.

Or another way of putting it: what the bloody hell is happening to golf, up to and including the astonishing events that reshaped the 44-year-old’s career in the past two months?

Across a fascinating chat, Donald’s first major newspaper interview since he replaced Henrik Stenson as the European captain for next October’s match, he will return to the Miracle of Medinah, other wins of a perfect Ryder Cup record and bonds that once seemed unbreakable.

But first to the recent past and two phone calls, both made by Guy Kinnings, the director of Ryder Cup Europe. In their narrow way they tell the story of a vast asteroid named LIV.

‘I remember the call to say Henrik had got the post,’ Donald says. ‘It would have been in March. I suppose I was a little drawn into some social media and whispers I was hearing that it looked likely I would be given the position.

‘I probably shouldn’t have got dragged into that. When I heard, I was disappointed because I felt like I was perhaps the favourite to get it. And then, yeah, I didn’t.’

He sighs. In regular circumstances, that would set a clock back by at least two years. But there is nothing normal about what has played out since Greg Norman fell down a bottomless well of Saudi Arabian money — in a game where many stars realised they have a price, for Stenson it was around £40million.

That led to a second call in July. ‘I had just landed in Detroit to play a tournament when they reached me,’ Donald says.

‘After Henrik announced he was going to LIV, there was talk Thomas (Bjorn, 2018 winning captain) might take the role because of the shortened captaincy. Guy said it was mine if I wanted it and I was elated.

‘It was pretty… not daunting… but you know, it’s a big job, especially with everything going on right now. I’m not going to lie — there’s a lot going on in golf that no one has had to deal with before. But that’s fine — every Ryder Cup captaincy has probably had its challenges. This is mine.’

Even for a man with no reputation for shooting from the hip, that is some understatement.

Donald is discussing why the European captaincy is the job of dreams. He has had many special days in 21 years in the lone-wolf existence of a touring pro — world No 1 for 56 weeks, 17 wins worldwide, five top-fives in the majors. But it is no great wonder that he so often thinks of scenarios from his four Ryder Cup wins.

He ‘loves’ the Cup, like most folk in his line of work do. It’s the drama, of course, but it is also that magnificent unknown of throwing 12 rivals in a room and seeing what comes out.

It’s a volatile equation — one where there is no telling how talent will react to the gravity and confined spaces. Some, like Ian Poulter, will fly; others who are far greater become lesser versions of themselves — no further examples are necessary once you’ve mentioned Tiger Woods.

That towering American never seemed quite so comfortable when integrated with men he was conditioned to beat.

For those like Donald, a holder of 10.5 points from a possible 15 in the Cup, including three from three against Woods, it was always the opposite. In his mind, the answer to such riddles is also the secret to who celebrates on the Sunday.

‘I don’t have many things on Tiger but that is a nice thing to have,’ Donald says. ‘I think Tiger, great as he was, probably didn’t perform as well in a Ryder Cup standpoint.

‘I think he was a little bit taken out of his element as someone so individually focused. Ryder Cups don’t tend to be about that. It’s about coming together in unity for something bigger than just yourself and that’s why I’ve always loved it. It’s what makes it special.’

Over and again, Donald will go to this topic. To camaraderie. To the forging of precious bonds. We all know from recent explosions where this thread of thought will lead, but for now Donald is going over the innocuous and profound moments of unity that have stayed in his mind across four Ryder Cups.

He thinks of The K Club, Ireland, in 2006. It was his second Ryder Cup after his winning debut as one of Bernhard Langer’s picks aged 26 in 2004.

Ian Woosnam had sent him out with Sergio Garcia, two men who excelled in one another’s company in matches against the US, and the other side of the foursomes duel was Woods and Jim Furyk. ‘It is funny some of the things that stick in your mind,’ Donald says.

‘I remember the 17th tee — water down the left, trees on the right. Sergio sees I’m really hesitant on what to hit and walks over. ‘You are a BMW’. I’m like, ‘What?’

‘He goes, ‘You are the ultimate driving machine — take driver’, I laughed, take out the driver and hit the fairway, and next shot he tucks it right next to the hole and the game was over. It’s silly but for me, the Ryder Cup is about those moments with people.’

It’s why some of his favourite memorabilia pinned to his office wall at home in Florida are the flags signed by the whole team from those four Cup wins.

What came next in the 2012 match would shape into one of the lesser-discussed turning points of a monumental victory, because at that stage Jose Maria Olazabal’s Europe were trailing 10-4 halfway through the Saturday afternoon four-balls.

Ian Poulter surged into the headlines for a five-birdie rampage alongside Rory McIlroy in the other remaining match, but had Donald and Garcia failed to beat Woods and Steve Stricker, there surely would have been no miracle.

‘When I think of Medinah, it is mostly about the whirlwind of going from despair to where it ended up,’ Donald says. ‘But from a personal standpoint on the course, I think of 17.

‘Sergio and I had been four up at the turn. By the time we got to 17, it was down to one. They had come right back at us and Tiger is Tiger. It’s a par three and Tiger hits to four feet. There’s pressure.

‘In that moment, your thoughts aren’t really clear. You’re just going on subconscious behaviours, but I put my seven iron to two feet and that allowed us to win on the next.

‘With Rory and Poults winning, a potential 12-4 was 10-6. We were dead and then we weren’t. Sharing that with Sergio and in the team room afterwards was special.

‘That Sunday before the singles, seeing how each person was matched up, we were all like, ‘I feel like I’m able to take my guy’. I’ll never forget that underdog mentality, and the collective feeling as we started to believe.’

With Olazabal in need of a rapid start, he put Donald out first, even ahead of McIlroy, who had recently usurped him as world No 1.

‘No one involved will forget,’ says Donald. ‘It was so special.’

He remembers being stood on a bench, singing as champagne sprayed all around. ‘That is not something I do every week,’ he adds. ‘The Ryder Cup has always brought out the best in my game and made me more extrovert as a person — it is amazing what that event does to you. Nothing else is like it and that won’t change.’

It’s a point he is keen to make at this stage, when it might seem the golfing world has set itself on fire.

Donald was always a quiet student of his captains, men as diverse as Langer, Woosnam, Colin Montgomerie and Olazabal. He made notes on them all.

‘I wrote down a lot over the years of what I liked and didn’t,’ he says. ‘I probably match up more with Bernhard. I’m detail orientated and I feel the guys can trust what I say. I’m a quieter leader, I suppose. I’m not quite the swashbuckling Seve (Ballesteros) type.

‘This is something I have worked towards a long time. I was making those notes from my first Ryder Cup. I didn’t think I’d be a Ryder Cup captain at this stage of my career, but I was given a great opportunity and successful people take opportunities like that.’

And yet there are no notes to cater for what has happened this year, which is to say three Americans and five Europeans from the 2021 match now play on the LIV circuit, including Garcia, who has become loathed in some quarters of the traditional faction.

For his part, Garcia is desperate to play in Rome in 2023 and McIlroy, for one, says he wants none of them near the team, adding that formerly close relationships are almost non-existent these days.

It is toxic, far removed from the scenarios treasured by Donald. It is also a rising difficulty for him: depending on how a portion of the legal battles play out in February, rebels might be eligible for selection eight months out from Rome.

A more pressing burden comes from LIV’s ongoing acquisition of talent — today’s loyalist could be tomorrow’s rebel, after all, and what does that mean for planning purposes? Donald has avoided wading too far into a powder-keg topic, with no sense to be had from backing himself into a corner.

In this conversation, he goes a little further, saying: ‘There’s certainly more fracturing in our sport than we’ve ever seen. Part of my job is to have 12 guys unified and wanting to come together next October.

‘Hopefully, things will improve and we’ll have a bit more clarity. But until then we’ll just be doing the best we can, controlling what we can. It is enjoyable and stressful and I think going towards that stress is the only approach.’

Factoring in so many fevered voices from within a warring game, Donald even cracks a grin: ‘Maybe we need a family quiz night.’

When asked if he felt any sympathy for former team-mates who went to LIV and who are now in the eye of an escalating storm, Donald says: ‘I’m not sure sympathy is the right word.

‘I think a lot of the guys knew if something like this happened there was a chance they couldn’t play on the Cup or Tour. They took that chance because they had an amazing career, so I wouldn’t say sympathy.’

He immediately adds: ‘Something I want to get out of this (captaincy) is to have lasting relationships with the 12 guys and continue that. That is the sad thing when you talk about Rory and some of the relationships. I am sure he would have loved to continue those.’

Like many in the sport, Donald believes there will eventually be a need for an agreement of sorts between the traditional tours and their wealthier new rival.

‘There is a little bit of a struggle for power right now and sometimes competition can be good. I think the top players will ultimately benefit from this and we are seeing that. But hopefully there can be some sort of a compromise, if that is the right word.’

It is at this stage that Donald takes the conversation back.

‘The good thing is the Ryder Cup represents something bigger than all of this,’ he says. ‘It represents something different to what is going on right now — unity and coming together and cohesion.

‘It’s about playing for the good of your team-mates. It’s why I am excited about this job. It is important to continue that history.’

That all sounds nice, of course. Not so rigidly guaranteed as it would have been prior to the asteroid, but nice. More than ever, golf just needs it to be right.

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Sport Luke Donald on the daunting challenge of captaining Europe's Ryder Cup team