Asteady breeze blew in Luke Donald's face at 2:43 p.m. last Thursday as he planted his tee on the 10th hole at Augusta National. Donald stepped behind his ball and took a long, languid practice swing before hitching his pants and moving into the address position. After taking one last look down the fairway, Donald launched a drive that started down the middle but then leaked to the right. His ball wound up a few yards off the fairway in what passes for rough at the National. The shot, Donald's first at the Masters, elicited a polite smattering of applause from the gallery, fitting for a player whose career ascent has been steady--"a continuous plod," according to his college coach--rather than spectacular.
These days, the plod has quickened. Donald went on to shoot a five-under 67 and tie for the lead after his first Masters round. He stumbled to a 77 during the rain-delayed second round but rebounded with scores of 69 and 69 to tie for third, seven shots out of the playoff. Donald's superb Masters debut was typical of the golf he has been playing for the past two years, during which time he has risen to 13th in the World Ranking. "My career has been about slow progress," says Donald, a fifth-year pro, "but I've improved every year and have high expectations for myself. I see myself winning majors for sure."
Donald's steady rise has not come as a surprise to those who know him. Friends use words like thoughtful, diligent and highly organized to describe the 27-year-old native of Hempstead, England.
"I have what some might call a busy head," says Donald. "I'm always thinking ahead, trying to figure out the best way to approach things." Donald attributed his good play last week in part to a two-day practice session at Augusta the week before the Players Championship. Donald's girlfriend, Diane Antonopolous, 22, whom he met when they were both students at Northwestern, says that when they're at home in suburban Chicago, Donald is constantly making to-do lists, crossing off each errand as he completes it. "Luke doesn't relax easily," Antonopolous says. "He's usually either doing something or thinking about doing something."
"From the day I met Luke, I never felt as if he were winging it," says Pat Goss, Donald's coach at Northwestern and still his primary instructor. "He has the ability to process things and remember them. We'll travel to some place that Luke goes to once a year, and it amazes me how well he remembers directions. He's the same way during practice rounds."
Goss had never heard of Donald until Stanford coach Wally Goodwin called to recommend him in 1998. ( Donald had wanted to attend Stanford but was not admitted.) Back then Donald, who is only 5'9", had a low ball flight and lacked power. Goss added width to Donald's swing, and the results were dramatic. As a sophomore, Donald won the NCAA championship in 1999. He also starred on two victorious European Walker Cup teams, winning seven of eight matches, including four of four singles.
After graduating in 2001, Donald played in seven Tour events on sponsors' exemptions but made the cut in only three of them. That fall he earned his card at Q school. Donald played in 30 events without a top 10 finish in his rookie year, then won the rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic in October 2002 to climb to 58th on the final money list. He drifted to 90th in earnings in '03 but was 35th last year, when he also went 2-1-1 as a captain's choice at the Ryder Cup. He has been even better this year, with a pair of second-place ties, at the Buick Invitational and the Players.
Donald's meticulousness is complemented by his creativity. When he learned that Northwestern didn't offer a business degree, he opted to major in art theory and practice. His own paintings are mostly sports-themed (right). Although he says time constraints have kept him from finishing a piece in almost a year, he is working on a painting of the 18th hole at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club in Lemont, Ill., that will grace the cover of the tournament program at the Western Open. "I'm sure finishing that painting is on his list," Antonopolous says.
Painting is a labor of love but not a source of entertainment for Donald. He doesn't keep a sketchbook or doodle for kicks. "I either decide to work on a painting for a few hours, or I don't paint at all," he says. Nevertheless, Donald's hobby is a telling window into his busy head. "He's unique because he has the ability to use both sides of his brain," says Jim Fannin, an Illinois-based performance coach who has worked with Donald for several years. "He's highly creative, but there's a discipline about him that most creative people don't have."
Donald didn't seem to be using either side of his brain last November in Seville, Spain, where he and Paul Casey teamed up to win the World Cup for England. Donald was sitting in the pressroom alongside Casey as Casey, who earlier in the week had infamously said that he "properly hated" the U.S. Ryder Cup team, defended the comments. Donald supported his teammate by saying that he thought Americans were "very insular." He added, "I guess it's a reaction to the Americans' way of thinking that they have the best country in the world and they don't really need to leave." Donald also echoed Casey's disparaging comments concerning the selection of Tom Lehman as captain of the 2006 U.S. Ryder Cup team, saying, "I don't really know how good of an appointment that was. I think, from what I've read, the Americans were running out of candidates and he was kind of a choice that they probably wouldn't have made if a few others had accepted."