Time flies when you’re having fun, so it’s little wonder a year has past in the blink of an eye for Ryder Cup hero Jamie Donaldson.
Incredibly, it’s already 12 months since the Welshman’s sublime wedge shot saw off Keegan Bradley to seal a third-straight Ryder Cup for Europe and spark jubilant scenes all around Gleneagles’ PGA Centenary Course.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that the season that has followed hasn’t reached the same heights for the likeable 39-year-old, but with qualifying now underway for the team that Darren Clarke will lead to Hazeltine next September, the world No.42 is desperate to ensure his performance wasn’t a one off.
We returned to the 15th hole – and the exact spot where Donaldson secured glory – to reminisce about that week, reflect on his season and look ahead to Europe’s defence.
A year on, are you ready to talk about something else?
No, thanks! It’s the highlight of my career so far. It’s still the first thing I talk about! I’ll never get bored of talking about it, especially in America! I spent four months there this year and they didn’t want me to talk about it – I still did (laughs).
How have the American players and fans reacted to you this season?
I’m still getting bits and bobs of abuse from the crowds, but I’ve enjoyed the stick from the fans and enjoyed winding them up in return – for the most part it’s done in good jest. What is clear is how frustrated the Americans are that they’re not winning the Ryder Cup, which is great for us, but awful for them. The players are obviously the same – Keegan and all of the US team said well done when I saw them in the weeks afterwards. But those guys are winners and they want to turn things around.
Mentioning Keegan, how aware were you that it was coming down to your match?
It had been building from the 11th. Crowds were gathering every hole and suddenly on the 15th tee it looked as though everyone that had been watching was there, trying to get a view. Being out at number 10 I’d always felt that was a possibility. Captain McGinley had said as much when he told me where I was playing. I remember walking from the tee and there were 40,000 people on this hole. We don’t get that kind of arena anywhere else in world golf. It’s something I’ll never forget.
I imagine you’ve watched it back a lot, but what can you remember of that moment?
(Laughing) Yeah, one or two hundred times. Sky replayed the whole Ryder Cup at Christmas and I kept putting it on! I’d missed a putt to win on 14, but put that out of my head and hit a perfect drive – I couldn’t have placed it better. It was just the perfect number – 146 yards, playing 135 yards, so a full pitching wedge for me. In those circumstances, all you want is a good number. If it had been a little further and I’d had to hit a soft 9-iron and I couldn’t have battered a full wedge with all the adrenalin and couldn’t have reached, suddenly it’s a very different shot and a very different thought process. It was just perfect with the adrenalin and conditions at the time.
As you stood over it, what were you thinking?
I was relaxed. My bad shots that week had been left so I knew, even if I didn’t hit a perfect one, that I’d be middle of the green, similar to Keegan, and he needed to win the hole. I just started it on the right edge of the green – I knew that if I started it on that line it was going to be good. To be good to that extent, obviously you don’t know. In the air you don’t know it’s going to finish a foot from the hole. The crowd reaction told me it was very good and then obviously the concession came and the party started!
It’s incredible that seven years earlier you’d been told to quit golf with back problems.
Yeah, back then I probably didn’t think things were going to pan out like this. I mean, if you’d said to me ‘you’re probably going to have to stop playing golf because your back’s that bad, but you’ll hit the winning shot in the Ryder Cup in 2014’ I’d have laughed.
What got you through?
Belief. I always had belief that there was bigger and better things in the future for me, they just weren’t happening at the time. The start of my career, everything went off quickly and well and then the back issues halted everything. And then I suffered a loss of form in 2006 and went back on the Challenge Tour. But it depends how you look at these things – you can sit there and sulk or you can think ‘I’m here for a reason, I’ve been playing sh*t and my back’s bad’. Find a way around it, find a way to do it, find a way to get to where you want to be – and that’s what I did, I changed a few things and did some things differently and it all started to move in a positive direction.
Is that the aim again now, because it’s been a mixed season since the Ryder Cup?
Yeah, I’ve had three top 10s and a few top 20s. I’d like to have done better in the States. I’ve played alright, it’s just not quite been happening. There’s been some good golf, nothing spectacular unfortunately, but I actually don’t feel far off. I think the Ryder Cup has provided me some new opportunities though – for example I’d never been paired with Tiger until the Masters. I’m not sure the cameras focused on me very much though!
Was it always going to be tough after the pressures of qualifying and then that high?
Perhaps. Gleneagles was the best week of my life to date. I’d been told what it was like but until you experience it first-hand and feel the passion you don’t really understand it and obviously it took me to the highest high. When it’s not a Ryder Cup season you’re pushing hard to compete in the majors and just better yourself in every event, but there’s not that added element. I’m looking forward to the additional push that brings again now.
How keen are you to ensure you’re part of Darren Clarke’s side for Hazeltine?
Once you’ve experienced it once you don’t want to miss another one so I’ll do everything I can to secure my own place.
You secured your 2014 spot by winning the Czech Masters. Did that ‘added element’ help drive that victory?
I’d spoken to Paul beforehand and he said ‘you’re in a position where you’ll probably get picked because you’ve played well all season, but I can’t guarantee it, so go and play the final two events, play well and then you can say you got in the team, you weren’t just picked’. I was determined to keep matters in my own hands so, even though my main focus was another European Tour victory, there was an extra motivation.
Paul McGinley’s captaincy drew plenty of praise. How important is the role and what sort of captain will Darren Clarke be?
I know Darren very well and he’s a great choice. He has great experience in the event, he’s respected and he’ll have an excellent relationship with his players. Paul McGinley was exceptional, no stone unturned, nothing left to chance, and I’m sure he will be there should Darren call upon him for help and advice. But regardless of the captain the players know what the Ryder Cup is about, understand the European team spirit and what winning this trophy means. Everybody knows the passion and how important it is for Europe to play in and win the Ryder Cup and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep our recent dominance going.
You turn 40 in October. How do you see your career progressing now?
I still feel pretty young in golf terms – plenty of players have played their best golf later in their career. I’ve always been a late developer – I was still a seven-handicapper when I was 16 and I was off three at 17 – so I feel I’ve got at least five really good years left. I see more to come. I’ve won three tournaments so far, obviously I’d like more and to be in contention at Majors, which I haven’t really managed yet. What happened at the Ryder Cup was excellent, a great stepping stone and something I’ll never forget, but obviously golf is mostly as an individual and a Major title is the dream.
Speaking of stone we can’t finish without talking about the plaque. Very few players have one so that must mean a lot?
It’s fantastic, a real honour. I remember when I got the call to tell me and asking if I’d come back for the unveiling – I don’t think I’ve ever said yes to anything as quickly. It’s a place and moment I’ll never forget and now no-one else will either! I’m not sure the greenkeeping staff will be quite as happy when they’re repairing all the divots.