Luke Donald: My confidence was shot and I was seriously thinking of quitting
It was more than just a fleeting thought. Luke Donald was not sure whether he would carry on. He had been the world No 1 less than three years before but there he was, seriously considering quitting professional golf.
This was May last year. The previous month had seen him fall out of the all-important world top 50 for the first time in more than a decade. For all but the first few years of his career, the Englishman had been a member of the elite, but now he was on the outside looking in.
Without a win on a major golf tour since he ruled the rankings in 2012, and having been overlooked for the 2014 Ryder Cup team by Paul McGinley, it was a foreboding sight; particularly as he was struggling to rediscover his golf swing after an ill-fated switch of coaches.
“My confidence had taken a big knock and I asked myself if I wanted to continue doing this,” Donald said.
“I wasn’t enjoying it, finding it so very hard and could not see much light at the end of the tunnel. But then I told myself not to be a baby, to grow up and realise how lucky I was. I was still playing golf for a living.”
Indeed, he was but, in truth, with career earnings north of £30 million, the 38-year-old and his family – wife Diane and their three young daughters – had more than enough to live on. Donald needed to refocus and for assistance sought out renowned sports psychologist Dr Michael Gervais. With Donald’s ranking in freefall, it is fair to comment that this was an apt choice.
Gervais is famous for helping Felix Baumgartner become the first human to break the sound barrier without mechanical help in that 24-mile skydive from the stratosphere. Suffering from claustrophobia, the Austrian was apparently afraid of his spacesuit. Donald’s problem was rather more straightforward.
“He just reminded me that it’s up to me what mood or mindset I’m in,” Donald said. “When you’re in a slump it’s easy to forget you’re still the one who is in control.” So Donald stepped back from the brink and showed his mental fortitude by qualifying for both the US Open and The Open, negotiating pathways he had not been obliged to take since fresh out of college. Yet, although there were promising performances at the Scottish Open (seventh) and Open (12th) and later his only top five of the year at the British Masters at Woburn, his year fizzled out. John MacLaren, the caddie with whom he won more than £18 million in six years, left him and soon pitched up on the bag of Donald’s countryman and friend Paul Casey and despite spotting the shoots of recovery in his game, Donald was probably glad to see the back of 2015.
He put the clubs away for three weeks, celebrated his birthday with his friend basketball legend Michael Jordan but now, after a month back on the range with his old coach Pat Goss, the player ranked 78th in the world feels ready to go again.
Mick Doran, another English caddie, will be at his side as this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii and next week’s CareerBuilder Challenge in Palm Springs, but after that the relationship is up in the air.
But then so much of Donald’s career is at the moment. If he is to make a 12th consecutive appearance at the Masters in April he requires either a win on the PGA Tour or a return to the top 50.
He is also not yet qualified for either of the World Golf Championship events in March or the US Open and Open. But Donald is determined not to obsess about his status. This keen artist is not a 'big picture’ type of guy, preferring to concentrate on the finer details instead.
“There was a time where I kept looking at the world rankings and kept seeing myself slipping,” Donald said. “And I think that’s the wrong approach. I’ve always been most successful when I have a plan and stick to it. Every day try to get a little better, incremental improvement. Of course, the goal is to get back in the top 50, then get back in the top 25, start getting some top 10s again, start winning tournaments again and just get back into that feeling.
“I think I have a little bit of a way to go, but I’m feeling confident that I can get back to at least close to the level I was a few years ago. I felt like it was very close the last few months. It just didn’t quite click. I haven’t had that one breakout win to kind of get the confidence going enough. But certainly I feel optimistic about my chances going forward.”
Darren Clarke will be glad to hear it. With the likes of Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell also outside the top 50 heading into this campaign, the Ryder Cup captain will be desperate for at least a couple of these heavyweights to force their way past the rookies into his team for Hazeltine in September.
Fresh faces have always been welcomed into the Europe fold but Clarke will not want to have too much inexperience in his line-up. Over the last 12 months all the talk has been about the changing of the guard, with an injured Tiger Woods dropping to 413th in the rankings. And nowhere does this new era seem to apply more than England with Danny Willett, Andy Sullivan, Matt Fitzpatrick and Chris Wood all leapfrogging the established names in the world order.
“You know, it’s not that difficult to fall down in the rankings. I’ve experienced that a little bit myself,” Donald said. “Look at Tiger. For 10 years he was unstoppable, unbeatable and this just shows how fickle this game is, how many ebbs and flows there is to it, and how hard it is.”
Jordan Spieth could be forgiven for suspecting otherwise. The world No 1 has started the year with the same cold-eyed demeanour of last year, claiming a four-shot halfway lead in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua, courtesy of a nine-under 64 in Friday’s second round, featuring 25 putts.
It was not too long ago that Donald was Spieth, bringing his rivals to their knees with that wand he waved on the greens. “Yeah, it’s a good feeling, thinking that you’re going to hole everything you look at. And you don’t think it’s ever going to end,” Donald said. “But for a good year there, as I focused on getting my swing back to what it was before I started working with Chuck Cook, my short game was not very good at all.
“I need to be one of the best in the world with my short game if I’m going to be successful out here with the way I play golf. But it’s improving and coming back. I’ll get there.”