Jamie Donaldson finally gets serious

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Jamie Donaldson made his European Tour debut in 2001. Ten years later, plagued by back issues, he seemed destined for nothing more than journeyman status. Then, in 2012, he won the Irish Open. It heralded a dramatic upturn that would see him win again in 2013 and 2014, amass some £5m in tournament winnings, make the Ryder Cup team and deliver the winning point. Here, he shares what that journey has taught him.

Jamie Donaldson

Jamie Donaldson used to get terrible back pain, because he would practise for hours and hours on the range. In 2004, he was diagnosed with a unilateral Pars defect in his lower back, which was irritating a lumbar disc. One doctor took a look at the scan, and said: “If I were you, I’d give up golf immediately, and try my hand at something else!” “I couldn’t hear that,” says Donaldson now. “That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. To be honest, as soon as somebody says that, you just go and see someone else!”

Donaldson saw hundreds of different doctors. “It got so bad, I was scared of bending down to pick up the ball out of the hole. If I trod in a pothole, I genuinely thought it might be the end of my career. It was horrific. I thought I was finished. “But sometimes you need to hit rock bottom before you can start to fly. Only then, when your career has been really threatened, do you learn about perspective. Only once you have gone as low as you possibly can, is it possible to go in the other direction.”

Jamie Donaldson

Donaldson’s journey eventually led him to a man called Jon Bowskill, in London. Bowskill explained to him that his disease could never be cured; but it was manageable. He explained that he would need to stop playing golf for a lengthy time; and go to the gym. “I took a whole season off,” says Donaldson. “I went to the gym for a year. I was working on core stability exercises, which enabled me just to manage the disease. Without doing that work initially, I wouldn’t be able to play today. I was in the wilderness for four years after that. I didn’t really know where I was. It was a case of just starting again and finding out what works, a slow rebuilding process.”

Jamie Donaldson

Less than 48 hours after he played that remarkable wedge to the 15th at Gleneagles, the winning shot of the 40th Ryder Cup, we phoned Donaldson in Dubai. Our interview with him could not start immediately, because he seemed to be otherwise engaged! “Just hang on for two minutes, will you?” he said. “I’ve just got to change a nappy!” Talk about celebrating in style! From the sublime to the ridiculous. No nannies for Donaldson. Just nappies. He is very hands on when it comes to his three-year-old son Max, and his one-year-old daughter Isla.

Donaldson has never been a prima donna (not many born in Pontypridd and brought up in Macclesfield are, to be fair.) Let’s face it, if – as a child – you have a mother who, every time you swing a golf club is shouting from the kitchen window “It’s time you got a proper job, young lad!” there is little time for nurturing an inflated view of yourself and your ability. “If you think that week in Gleneagles was hard, you should try looking after two kids under four. I’ve hardly had time to think about the Ryder Cup. The kids bring you very firmly back to earth.”

Jamie Donaldson

Donaldson reckons professional golfers should never underestimate how fortunate they are. When he played on the Challenge Tour in 2007, visiting dirty hotel rooms in Kazakhstan and Colombia, it was far from glamorous. And yet, he still loved it! “That year on the Challenge Tour was a reality check for me,” he says. “I was in the wilderness. I wasn’t really earning enough money to keep myself, let alone a family. After two events on the Challenge Tour I was staring in the face having to get a ‘real’ job, and I really didn’t like that prospect! I was playing rubbish, staying in terrible bed & breakfasts and accommodation which wasn’t clean. But I didn’t mind roughing it. My attitude was that as long as I had a bed to sleep in, and it wasn’t too cold, it didn’t matter. When I was a lad, we used to go to watch the Open, and sleep in the back of a Ford Fiesta, where it was Baltic at night, just to see Seve and Faldo play.”

Ever since that comparatively dark year, Donaldson has been rebuilding; and in the seven years that have followed, he just keeps on getting better and better. In those years, he has finished 89th (2008), 59th(2009), 46th (2010), 38th(2011), 19th (2012) and 5th (2013) in the Order of Merit; and at the time of going to press, he is 4th in 2014. He has won a tournament in the last three years. And he is now the 24th best player on the planet. Not bad for someone who played in 254 tournaments before he won one.

Jamie Donaldson

It took Donaldson 12 years of hard labour, 32 top-10 finishes, before he eventually got the taste of victory. His breakthrough came when he was 36, in the 2012 Irish Open. Earlier that week, he shot a 62 at Sunningdale to qualify for the Open at Royal Lytham. Despite that, he changed his caddie of five years, replacing James Baker with Mick Donaghy, just to freshen things up. In the first round Donaldson made a hole-in-one. It was his first ace in competition. If he was nervous in the final round, down the stretch, the Welshman certainly didn’t look it. He shot 66, making birdies at five of his last seven holes. When his 20-footer on Portrush’s final hole disappeared, it meant he had won by four shots; at which point the 36-year-old took off his hat and, with a flourish, took a stylish bow to rapturous applause.

Winning is a habit. When you’ve done it once, it should become easier the second time. Eventually, if you work hard enough, it might even become second nature. And yet the European Tour statistics are littered with one-hit wonders, players who have stepped off the rostrum and straight into oblivion. How you react to your first victory is so important. Fourteen events after winning for the first time (2012 Irish Open), Donaldson won again (2013 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship). Coming from two behind to beat Justin Rose and Thorbjorn Olesen. “That was crazy,” says Donaldson, “especially after the start I had to that week. I played the pro-am and thought ‘This golf course is too difficult’. I said to the guys in the pro-am if I could somehow get a top-10 out of the week, it would be a miracle. To end up winning was just hilarious! You never know in this game really, you don’t.”

Jamie Donaldson
Jamie Donaldson

If the field for Jamie’s first victory was strong, then the field for his second was phenomenal. Both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy played in that tournament in Abu Dhabi. And Donaldson came out on top, while neither Woods nor McIlroy were able to make it past the 36-hole cut. Not only that, the world number 5 that week, Justin Rose, led from the start, and looked for all the sand in the Middle East as though he was going to be a wire-to-wire winner. Until Jamie overtook him in the final furlong.

“That does a lot for your confidence,” says Donaldson. “Most weeks on the European Tour the fields are very strong, but that week in Abu Dhabi, in particular, the field was exceptionally strong. To be able to hold off somebody like Justin, down the stretch, was awesome. That week (unlike in Ireland) I felt particularly calm on the final day. I have a lot of belief when I get my head down, and just keep playing aggressive, and playing my game.”

Jamie Donaldson

“I try never to put any limits on where I can get to,” says Donaldson, who is clearly very ambitious; but also very private about his ambitions. “I just keep doing the same things every week, and see where the game takes me. My goals have always been very high; sometimes too high. We’ll just have to keep plodding on and see where it takes us.”

It gets tough to keep dreaming about winning, when you go 12 years and 254 tournaments without doing it. But Donaldson persevered. And it eventually happened. “It was just as I imagined in my dreams,” he says. “To win at a great course like Royal Portrush, in front of record European Tour crowds, well, you couldn’t have written it better. It was all a bit surreal at the time, to be honest. “Obviously doubts crept in after years of not winning, but it was just a case of keeping going. I knew what I was doing was right. I guess it takes some people longer than others. It certainly took me a lot longer than I thought it would.”

Jamie Donaldson

No one was under more pressure in the run-up to Gleneagles than Donaldson. After a fast start to the qualifying period, he knew he had to play well in the Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in August to secure his place in the team. He played solidly, finishing 37th and 24th, but came up just short – after missing three putts he should have made on Sunday at Valhalla.

McGinley wrote him a text, and told him he had to play in the next two weeks, in the Czech Republic and Italy. More than that, the text told Donaldson he would need to earn the 30,000 euros to make automatic selection; because if he didn’t, the Irishman might well have to opt for ‘experience’ ahead of him. “Paul told me I had to push on to seal my place,” remembers Donaldson. “He told me he wanted me in his team.”

How easy it would then have been to wilt like a daffodil. Instead, the man from Pontypridd won the Czech Masters – so rather than the required 30,000 euros, he won 166,660. Job done! And, on the toughest stage of all, at the Ryder Cup itself, Donaldson showed he has what it takes. Being blooded in the foursomes, rather than the fourballs, is never easy. “I enjoyed it. The greater sense of focus from foursomes worked well for me. Lee [Westwood] and I were 5-under and 4-under in our two foursomes matches. You just know you can’t switch off and make any mistakes at all.”

On Saturday night, when McGinley pointed at Donaldson and told him he wanted him to go out in 10th spot in the singles, the captain said: “You’ve been playing well coming into this week, and you’re playing well here. It could very well come down to your match, so get ready!” Again, it would have been very easy for the Welshman to fold like a cheap blanket. But he didn’t. He went out and beat Keegan Bradley 5&3.

Jamie Donaldson

“I used to practise ridiculously long hours,” says Donaldson, “to a point where I wouldn’t stretch afterwards or before. I would just waltz on to the practice ground and stay there all day, hitting balls. In the end your body tells you it’s had enough.

“I have physio every day now, and occasionally take medication, but I feel like there is no problem. Once you’ve done the exercises for so long, you’re training muscles which you’ve never had before, they seem to just stay. I don’t practise as much as I used to. And I don’t do anything that might aggravate the problem. So, I can sort of keep it at bay.”

Jamie Donaldson

Because winning – even for the very best – doesn’t happen every day at golf, you need to make sure that when it does happen, you make the most of it.

At 7.15 am on the Monday morning, Donaldson appeared on the lawn at Gleneagles dressed in a canary-yellow hoodie. A Sky Television crew approached. Asked if he had been able to take it all in yet, he was alarmingly honest. “No,” he said, looking like a boxer who had just got up off the canvas. “Because I am still drunk.” There were certainly echoes of Freddie Flintoff after the 2005 Ashes, and Darren Clarke after the 2011 St George’s Open; but no one deserved it more.

 Jamie Donaldson