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Michael Bamberger
August 09, 1999
Almost a decade after his defining moment, Mike Donald soldiers on
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August 09, 1999


Almost a decade after his defining moment, Mike Donald soldiers on

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The last time you saw Mike Donald was probably at the U.S. Open in 1990, when a major was last held at Medinah. That Open was an epic, decided in a playoff between Donald, a lunch-bucket pro playing on guts and near-perfect timing, and Hale Irwin, an aging icon seeking his third national championship. Each had played the first four rounds in eight under par, 280 strokes. Both had shot 74 in the 18-hole playoff. When Irwin's 10-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death fell to the bottom of the cup, the great golfer's hands went up in triumph while the loser's went down to retrieve Irwin's ball. "God bless Mike Donald," Irwin said. "I almost wish he had won." That's old stuff now, nearly a decade old. Nine years and two months, to be precise.

"We should have flipped a coin for the honor," Donald was saying the other day. Mike and I have been friends since 1985, and we were reminiscing about Medinah. He was referring to the order of play for the 19th hole of the playoff. After 18, Donald and Irwin signed for their 74s and reconvened at the par-4 1st hole for the first Open to be decided in sudden death. On the tee, P.J. Boatwright, the widely respected USGA official, awarded the honor to Irwin because Irwin had made par at 18 and Donald had made bogey. "We should have flipped or picked numbers or something," Donald said. "We had finished a medal round, and now we were starting over."

There was a hint of resentment in Donald's voice, not because he would have won the Open had he played first. Who knows what would have happened? Donald's ire was over a thing being done wrong, for if Donald is committed to anything, it is to doing a thing right. He was never a great golfer, but he was a great touring pro. That was the thing he did right. He made cuts, 294 in his career. He is 44 and has not been fully exempt on Tour, with an automatic spot in most events, since 1994. On that tee nine years and two months ago, in the heat of an unprecedented moment, a man, an official, did not do his job right. That's Donald's opinion, and mat's enough to set him off.

The years since that Open have not been kind to Donald. His mother died in 1991, his father in 1996. His swing coach, Gardner Dickinson, died last year. Recently he was as close to marriage as he has ever been, but her life was rooted in the rural Northwest, and the only life he has ever known is amid the suburban sprawl of South Florida. In the end they decided that they were geographically incompatible.

Donald joined the Tour in 1980 and spent most of a decade palling around with four other guys, but they've all gone their own ways. Jim Booros teaches at the Growcraft Golf Center in Allentown, Pa.; Bill Britton plays the Nike tour and has four children; Fred Couples lives in LA, among the stars; Lance Ten Broeck caddies for Jesper Parnevik. For a long time Couples and Donald were very close. Donald's best memories are from those early years. He remembers pulling up to a Motel 6—or maybe it was a Hampton Inn—after a long drive with Fred and hearing him say, half asleep, "Check in as a single." A room for a single was $30 and a room for two was $35. Five bucks was five bucks.

Donald realizes that Booros and Britton and Couples and Ten Broeck have interests, encumbrances and complications in their lives that he does not. "I don't know anybody like me," Donald says. "I've got no boss, no job, no wife, no children, no girlfriend. My parents are dead. I've got a two-bedroom apartment. No lawn to mow. I've got no responsibilities."

Well, he has one responsibility. He feels a responsibility to golf, to play the game right. For three or four years now, his golf has been lousy—Donald would use more brutal language—and a lot of the time he doesn't feel like playing. Still, he does. Donald gets into the occasional Tour event under the rubric past champion. (His lone victory was the 1989 Anheuser-Busch Classic.) Last year he played 11 events, made two cuts and finished 296th on the money list. Quitting the game is not an option. A job you can quit. A life you cannot.

Once a day, at least, somebody or something will remind Donald of his week at Medinah nine years and two months ago. That doesn't bother him. "If I had won, my life would be the same as now," he says. "The only thing that would be different is that I'd have my name on the Open trophy." When the PGA Championship is held at Medinah next week, Donald will be watching on TV. He watches a lot of golf.

He can't play Nike tour events. He can get into some of them but finds the atmosphere insufferable: Scores of young golfers with bang-bang swings who think the world owes them a six-figure income for their talent—that's Donald's take. For years he tried to duplicate the rush he felt at the '90 Open, but he couldn't. Now he has a desire to become what he once was, a respected journeyman. But without his old friends to hang with, he knows even that wouldn't be what it was. He knows he needs to lose weight to make his old swing, the swing he wants to make. At the '90 Open, when he was low everyman, his stomach was far from flat, but now it's rounder yet. Lately he has been on a health kick, working out, giving up his half-case-a-day Diet Coke habit and eating turkey sandwiches for lunch.

Though Donald and I are friends, we go long periods without speaking to each other, usually for no particular reason. Once, for a particular reason, we went four days without speaking. That was in 1986, at the Colonial National Invitation. I was caddying for him. Early in the first round Donald drove into a fairway bunker. I arrived at the bunker well ahead of my boss, put down his bag and noticed that a rake was about 15 feet in front of his ball. Tournament golfers don't like unnecessary distractions, so I picked up the rake. The sand was soft, and the rake left an imprint. Tournament golfers, of course, are fastidious. I raked smooth the imprint so that it wouldn't distract my man. At that moment Donald arrived. I believe his exact words were, "What the f—- are you doing? You're testing the sand!" He immediately called over a rules official and explained what I had done. Donald was expecting a two-shot penalty, but the official told him no rule had been broken. This did not excuse me, not in Donald's mind nor in my own. Donald made the cut on the button, finished last and earned $1,140. I felt he was justified in giving me the silent treatment. I had put us into a gray area, and that brought him stress. I had failed to do my job right.

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