Commentary

Luke Donald not ducking major issue

Updated: July 17, 2012, 4:40 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

NORTHFIELD, Ill. -- In his pre-fatherhood days, nobody could sulk like Luke Donald. Before little Elle and Sophia were born, it could take Donald a week, sometimes longer, to recover from a botched tournament, especially a major.

"When you come home to someone like this," said Donald, as he took turns feeding breakfast to his young daughters during a recent interview, "it's easy to forget those bad days at the course."

Easy to forget the bad days, but not so easy to forget his record in majors. He knows those numbers by heart: 0-for-career.

Donald and the Big Four are barely on speaking terms. If he doesn't leave the Open Championship with a Claret Jug this week -- and based on his crummy history in majors, he probably won't -- then Donald's winless streak in biggies stretches to 36.

[+] EnlargeLuke Donald
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesSince 2006, Luke Donald has yet to break 70 in the opening round of a major, including a 79 at the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.

Only two players in the 24-year history of the Official World Golf Rankings have reached No. 1 and never won a major before, during or after. That would be Lee Westwood (22 weeks atop the rankings) and fellow Englishman, Donald, who has spent 53 weeks in the top spot.

And still no Green Jacket ceremony at The Masters, no hugfest with the U.S. Open trophy, no sipping an adult beverage out of the Jug and no make out session with the PGA of America's Wannamaker Trophy.

"That gnaws at me," said Donald, who has just two top-five finishes in majors since 2007. "That I haven't quite figured how to bring my best game to the big tournaments -- the majors. But as I said, I do feel like [I] have 30, 40 majors ahead of me and if I keep doing what I'm doing, one will get in the way."

Phil Mickelson didn't win his first of four majors until he was 33. Ben Hogan didn't win his first of nine championships until he was 34. Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington were 35 when they won their firsts. So was Nick Price. Donald is 34, so maybe he's right about running face first into a major. And maybe it happens at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

But perhaps the biggest surprise has less to do with a major, and more to do with Donald himself. Not winning a major gnaws at Donald? He used to go days and days in a post-tournament funk? Really?

To watch him on the course and to even talk to him afterward, you'd never know it. Donald is as cool as a bowl of sherbet. If you ever see him heave a club, spit, drop an F-bomb or yell at a caddie, please alert the proper authorities and then collect your reward.

But it turns out he cares. A lot. And more than anyone ever knew.

Ask him at what point the majors winless streak will begin to play with his mind and he doesn't hesitate.

"Well, I think it already has," he said. "Nothing new. I've been trying to win one of those for the last 10 years."

But it is new. Because for the first time, Donald is sort of pulling back the drapes on his life and his feelings.

You see the guy in the visor, the Ralph Lauren clothing ensembles, the understated body language, the post-round interviews in which Donald speaks in mostly reserved, analytical tones. He could be giving a lecture on molecular biology.

Donald isn't Bubba long. He doesn't wear Rickie Fowler day-glo. He's not Golf Boys material.

But at his north suburban Chicago house, a barefoot Donald chases Elle, 2, down a hallway, almost giggling as much as her. Sophia, 8 months, watches from a highchair. Their old man wears a pair of cargo shorts and a collar-less shirt. It's like Iron Man peeled off his protective covering.

"The message I really want to get out there is that I'm someone who works hard, gets the most out of his talent, off the course has a great family life," he said. "Just kind of fun and not quite as serious as I might be perceived on the golf course. Likes to have a good time. Likes to go out and enjoy a meal. Have a glass of wine. Enjoy my friends I grew up with. But at the same time very diligent about preparing and working, working my ass off."

Family man? Check. You can't find many walls in his house that don't feature a photo of his kids or his college sweetheart wife, Diane. They met at Northwestern and when it came time to propose, Donald arranged for a friend to bring Diane to a local restaurant, where flowers and love letters were waiting. Donald watched from the kitchen.

"Asked the question and she said yes, fortunately," said Donald, who almost ended up at Stanford, where he would have gained Tiger Woods as a teammate, but lost his chance at Diane as a wife.

They were married, surrounded by family, in Greece (Antonopoulos is her maiden name) and celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary a few weeks ago.

Donald can play a song or two on the piano. He has his own wine label. His own workout room. His own golf practice facility in the basement. He knows his way around a paint brush and canvas.

[+] EnlargeLuke Donald
Glyn Kirk/AFP/GettyImagesLuke Donald's best showing at his home major -- the Open Championship -- was a T-5 in 2009 at Turnberry. He owns six career top-10s in major championships.

But it's not like he walks around wearing an ascot and a smoking jacket. He likes the finer things in life, but mostly the dependable things in life. He has remained close friends with four boyhood buddies from England. Before his wedding, they had a mustache-growing contest. And Donald still arranges a trip for them each year.

One of his favorite bottles of wine, still unopened, was given to him by Ryder Cup European teammate Sergio Garcia. And you should see Donald's face when he shows off the three Ryder Cups on his office mantel. He beams with pride.

"I can remember pictures: him holding a newborn baby, dinners at my house -- the core of his personality hasn't changed," said longtime Northwestern coach Pat Goss, who recruited Donald to Evanston and remains his swing coach. "I see the way he still treats my daughters. … He's a fun-loving, great guy."

Just recently has Donald begun to take his personality out for a walk. At the Golf Writers Association of America awards dinner in April, Donald cracked wise about the lack of attention paid to him by the media. Despite becoming the first player to win the money titles on both the PGA and European tours in same year (2011) and despite his No. 1 ranking, it was Rory McIlroy, not Donald, who seemed to capture the public's attention (and the media's too).

So near the end of his Player of the Year acceptance speech, he pulled a McIlroy wig out of his suit coat pocket, tugged the fake curly hair on his head and had a laugh. The place roared -- partly because it was hilarious, but mostly because it was the supposed wallflower Brit who brought the house down.

Of course, McIlroy has a major and Donald doesn't. And in golf, the first paragraph of your obituary never includes how many Transitions Championships you've won, but how many majors. For Donald, that would be zero.

"There is a difference, especially more of a difference for the guys in the spotlight," Donald said of trying to win a tour event versus a major. "Because the expectations, the pressures are more on those guys. And I'm one of those. … Having to deal with that, and I haven't done a great job in majors. I'm the first to put my hand up."

Said Goss: "I think some of what's happened is golf and, if anything, he wants it too badly. I worry about self-created pressure on trying to win a major, creating a little bit of anxiety on himself. That manifests itself negatively."

In other words, lighten up, Luke.

Or maybe we need to cut Donald a break. Or redefine the definition of success. It's not like Donald doesn't want to win a major. He actually visualizes hoisting one of those trophies above his head.

"I want to fill that gap, that void," he said.

But there's something to be said for being under par as a husband, for caring about your boyhood friends the same way as a nobody and then as a somebody, for remembering to chase your daughter barefoot down a hallway.

Donald wants to win a major in the worst way. He spent quality time with Nick Faldo (the most recent Englishman to win a major, in 1996) last month at the Memorial, just so he could try to uncover some of Sir Nick's championship secrets. And there is hardly a pre-majors approach Goss and Donald haven't tried.

"With Luke's nature, it would mean a lot to him," said Goss. "I think Luke's goals are to win more than one major. … I have full faith that he would."

And if it happens this week at the Open Championship, there would be a celebration worth DVR'ing. The Claret Jug, still recovering from last year's winner, Northern Ireland's Darren Clarke, might call in sick.

"I'd probably start with a little bit of champagne," Donald said. "Go on to have some wine afterward. I'll drink anything at that point. I don't know if I can drink as much as the last Open champion."

He paused for effect.

"But I'd give it a shot."

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter