After over 250 European Tour events, Jamie Donaldson hit the big time at Portrush last year. Now he is bound for Magnolia Lane.
A hotel room in Guatemala almost six years ago was the unlikely setting for an intense bout of self-examination that, in a way, is responsible for steering Jamie Donaldson down Magnolia Drive to the Augusta National and his first US Masters.
At 37, Donaldson is something of a late developer. This is only his fifth major tournament. But he will tee up at Augusta with two prestigious wins behind him in the last nine months, and he has no intention of being an also-ran.
We’ll return to that Guatemalan hotel room, but first thing’s first. When, in January, Donaldson added the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship to his maiden European Tour victory in last summer’s Irish Open, he had not only conquered two fields that contained Rory McIlroy, but one that had Tiger in it, too.
By then he had already qualified for the 77th US Masters by breaking into the world’s top 50, and if some of the patrons at Augusta look at their programmes and say “Jamie who”, rest assured that the world’s greatest players know exactly who he is, and how good he can be.
With a top-10 finish in last year’s US PGA at Kiawah Island further bolstering the conviction that he is ready to step up to golf’s top table, Donaldson can hardly wait to turn into Magnolia Drive. “It’s going to be awesome,” he says. “It’s what you dream about as a kid. It’s the most special major in a way, isn’t it, because it’s the hardest to get in.
What am I looking forward to most? Walking down those perfect fairways, putting on the best greens in the world, playing the 12th, which sometimes seems, from the coverage, like it’s the only hole on the course. Seeing the azaleas and magnolias, the crowds, everything...”
He recalls watching the Masters first in 1986, on television, “when Jack won”. He was 10 years old, and not yet a golfer, though he sometimes caddied for his father, a five-handicapper. “He had a bit of a temper. He used to chuck clubs up trees, and I had to get them down. I thought ‘this is great, this game. You can play it and climb trees at the same time’.”
Donaldson chuckles, and admits he couldn’t always control his own temper, either, when he started playing seriously a couple of years later. Unsurprisingly, his dad didn’t have much success calming him down. “He tried to but it didn’t work, because he was 10 times worse.”
We are at his home just outside Macclesfield, which he shares with his partner Kat and their year-old son Max. Donaldson was born in Pontypridd, and considers himself a proud Welshman, but in truth, and certainly in accent, he is a Cheshire lad, having lived close to Manchester airport, where his father worked as a crew controller for British Airways, for all but the first few years of his life.
And now his dad and his brother will be jetting over to Georgia to watch him in the Masters. “It’s a bit of a boys’ trip, really,” he says, showing me the stiff summons from William Porter Payne – a formal invitation is no place for ‘Billy’ – to “participate in the Two Thousand and Thirteen Masters Tournament”.
He knew the letter would be arriving, of course, but it was still a thrill when it did, just after Christmas, and he lost no time texting a photograph of it to his pal Robert Rock, as yet uninvited to the Masters. It was payback time, Rock having similarly teased him by flaunting a Rolex watch he’d won.
“Rocky, Steve Webster and Simon Dyson are my best mates on Tour. But I can’t banter with Dyson like I can with the others because he’s more successful. Me, Rocky and Webby have each won twice, but Dyson’s won six. And if I’d sent him that (a picture of the invitation), he’d say ‘I’ve done it twice, mate’.”
He can still claim bragging rights if he makes the cut, which Dyson hasn’t yet done. But he has loftier aims than that.“I’m certainly not going just to make up the numbers,” he says. “I’ve won two tournaments in the last year, and the next thing is to win a major. I’m not saying I’m going to do that, but I’ll be playing in all four of them this year, and I’ll give it my very best shot.”
Winning the first of them might be the tallest order, for, as Donaldson himself concedes, “a lot of people struggle for years before they get used to Augusta”.
He doesn’t know yet whether his game will suit those manicured slopes, but he’s endearingly excited by the prospect of finding out. “They say it’s a course made for the draw, and I’ve been doing that for quite a while, but in my last tournament I was hitting fades off the tee, so I might have to work on that. My short game’s pretty good... it will have to be.”
What would be his dream three-ball on day one? “Tiger, Rory, me,” he says, then pauses. “No, maybe not Rory – I’ve played with him a few times. I’ve never played with Tiger.”
When he has played with Rory, has he ever found himself thinking that here is a young man out of his league? If he considers this an impertinent question, he doesn’t say so. “Well, he was unreal in that US PGA (in which Donaldson finished joint-seventh, 10 shots behind McIlroy). He’s the best ball-striker out there, and I can only watch him in awe. But at the end of the day, I do it differently. I don’t do what he does, but he doesn’t do what I do. So, I might watch him and think ‘wow’ but then I just get my head down and do my own thing.
"Driving is probably the best part of my game, but both tournaments I’ve won, I’ve putted brilliantly. When I’m on, I feel like I can do everything. But it all has to come together at the same time, because it’s tough out there. Every tournament, there’s guys trying to keep their cards, guys trying to win the Order of Merit, trying to get into the Seve Trophy. You’re always playing against a really hungry field.”
Donaldson first felt the hunger aged 16. He left school determined to become a professional golfer, but it seemed more like a fantasy than an ambition. “I was playing off a seven handicap, so I was no world-beater. I wasn’t like Justin Rose, who was scratch when he was 12. I just knew I wanted to turn pro, so I worked ridiculously hard at it. I was scratch at 18, and turned pro at plus-4.”
This brief resume hides a multitude of knocks, for in pursuing his dream to turn pro, there seemed nothing to distinguish him from every other decent amateur. When he was 23, still living at home and with no income, playing golf only through the munificence of the Welsh Sports Council, his mother sat him down.
“She gave me a proper talking-to. She said I’d been doing nothing but play golf for four years, and maybe it was time to get a proper job. When such a commanding figure in your life says that, you have to listen. And she and my dad had supported me for so long. I didn’t want to get a proper job, but I realised I could probably only give it one more year. Luckily, I had my best year.”
Once he’d turned pro he made gradual progress, but in 2004 developed back problems so grievous that after eight events he had to stop playing. “I’d always practised until the cows came home but I never used to stretch before or after, and after years and years of that, basically it was just waiting for a bomb to go off. And it did go off.”
Disc degeneration and a condition called Pars Defect were diagnosed, and one doctor advised him to give up golf altogether. Instead, Donaldson consulted a spinal rehabilitation specialist called Jon Bowskill, who masterminded his return to fitness. But it was slow going, and it required him practically to set up home in the gym. However, he overdid it. “By 2006 I was still doing masses of gym, and practising like mad, and I just drove myself into the ground.” He lost his European Tour card, and spent 2007 on the Challenge Tour, which is when he wound up in that Guatemalan hotel room, asking questions of himself to which he didn’t much like the answers.
“I was playing three events in South America, and I’d finished 30th in the first two,” he recalls. “I’d played OK, but I was losing dough. I remember thinking to myself ‘this isn’t working. I’ve got to start doing things differently.’ I realised that if I didn’t pull my finger out, I’d have to go and get that proper job my mum had been talking about. It was a massive reality check. And it must have helped. Because the following week, I won. I played well for the rest of the year, and I got my card back.”
Since then he has improved every year, achieving more and more top 10s, until last July at Royal Portrush, he at last found himself on top of the leaderboard when it mattered most, shooting a closing 66 in the Irish Open, including five birdies in the last seven holes. The ease of his win, by four shots, belied the amount of time and effort it had taken him to get there. It was his 256th tournament, 11 years after turning pro.
“It was just my week,” he says now. “Everything went my way. I had a hole-in-one, I played awesome golf from start to finish, putted great, and that was it. But it was so weird, because it felt like I’d always been doing it. I was like, ‘what’s all the fuss about?’ That definitely enabled me to win again in Abu Dhabi.”
And both wins enabled him to sleep a little easier, having stretched himself financially by buying a plot of land bang in the heart of Cheshire’s footballer-belt, a drive and a pitch away from the home of Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero.
He takes me to see the five-bedroomed house he’s having built there, and explains that with each handsome cheque that comes his way, he and Kat are able to upgrade the kitchen, the lighting, the furniture. A decent finish at Augusta and that will be the garden sorted, too.