Interview: Jamie Donaldson the winner by smiles

Jamie Donaldson beside the plaque at Gleneagles that marks the spot where he played the winning shot for Europe in the Ryder Cup. Picture: Getty
Jamie Donaldson beside the plaque at Gleneagles that marks the spot where he played the winning shot for Europe in the Ryder Cup. Picture: Getty
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Donaldson rediscovered his form by trying less hard – and he’s had a grin on his face ever since

Even from a distance, the engaging and approachable character of the man is easy to discern. Smiles are never far from the amiable face atop the solid frame around which one of European golf’s most aesthetically pleasing swings revolves. By reputation, he’s the sort of guy alongside whom you could happily close a bar. For he has stirring tales to tell, from a career filled with occasional hardship, memorable exploits and perhaps the ultimate in on-course derring-do. Eight months ago, as you may recall, Jamie Donaldson hit the shot that clinched Ryder Cup victory for Europe.

Jamie Donaldson is congratulated by delighted European captain Paul McGinley. Picture: Getty

Jamie Donaldson is congratulated by delighted European captain Paul McGinley. Picture: Getty

Just a few days ago the 39-year-old Welshman returned to the 15th fairway on the PGA Centenary course at Gleneagles and the very spot – 146 yards from the flag and now commemorated forever by a plaque – from which he struck the wedge that confirmed America’s eighth defeat in the last ten biennial encounters between Old and New Worlds.

“It was so flattering to be asked back,” says Donaldson. “Hitting the shot again was fun, although I was bit worried I might ‘fat’ it halfway after flying up that morning and sitting in a car for an hour. But I ended up hitting a couple of good ones. I ‘leaned’ on the first and it pitched maybe 15 feet past the flag. And the next one was about four feet away.

“On the shot itself, I was confident enough. The wind was helping and slightly off the right. The pin was on the right, which actually helped me. I’d been pulling my wedges a little all week. Even if I did that, my ball would finish in the middle of the green. So I was able to be really aggressive and go straight at it. I knew there was no way I was going to miss to the right. Did I know beforehand it was going to finish a foot from the pin? No. But when it was in the air I knew it was perfect.”

As ever in golf, the journey to that seminal moment in the former Irish Open champion’s life has hardly been smooth. Less than a decade ago, Donaldson lost his European Tour card and spent a season back on the second division Challenge circuit. Two years before that he was laid low by back injury. Into his early 30s, disappointingly for one so obviously talented, his was a career going nowhere in particular.

‘I might be the only golfer claiming I got better by not working out. It’s a bit overrated if I’m honest’

“Back then, everything was a struggle for me,” he reveals. “It was all a bit of a re-forming process. I played some terrible stuff in 2006 and was back on the Challenge Tour in 2007. Thank goodness it was only for the one year. The Challenge Tour is great but it isn’t somewhere anyone wants to be for long. So 2008 was all about finding my feet again on the main tour.

“But I’ve always been a late developer. I’ve no idea why I seem to take a bit longer to mature than most players, but it’s been that way all the way through my career. I’ve certainly never had an older head on my shoulders. But I’ve always got there in the end.”

Still, early struggles have often been the making of a great golfer. En route to major championship and Ryder Cup glory Donaldson’s fellow Welshman Ian Woosnam famously made seven visits to the Qualifying School before making it on to the European Tour.

“For me, that year on the Challenge Tour was the kick in the pants I needed,” adds Donaldson. “I sulked my way through 2006 because I felt like I was under-achieving. In 2005 I finished 79th on the money-list having put everything into it. I played really well. I was never out of the gym and when I was I was on the range. Yet I finished well down the Order of Merit. That was so disheartening. I felt like I couldn’t do any more so how could I ever get better? I was all out; that was the best I could do.

“Before I knew it, of course, I was gone. I was in a place from where there might have been no return. So I had to make changes. I did things very differently in 2007. I stopped going to the gym. I felt like I was getting nothing out of all that effort. So I might be the only golfer claiming I got better by not working out. It’s a bit overrated if I’m honest. Rory (McIlroy) looks great admittedly, like a proper athlete. But is he gaining much from it in golfing terms? I’m not sure.

“In other words, I stepped away from the game a little. Which helped. Suddenly, I was keen to play. I wanted to go to events. And I went there fresh and rested. In 2006 I was burned out when I arrived. Now, I get to tournaments wanting to play.”

Ah, but life is rarely straightforward. Wanting to play and knowing where to play are two different things. Which is why Donaldson will soon enough have one more important matter on his mind. Just back from four months in the United States, he is closing in on one of life’s turning points. Next year, when son Max turns five, the Donaldson clan will have to decide whether or not to base themselves over here or over there. Macclesfield or Lake Nona in Orlando? It’s a tough (!) choice.

“There is no doubt that the Florida lifestyle is awesome,” he says. “But we have some breathing space. Right now, I think we will probably stay in the UK. I’ll be doing some commuting, even though that can be brutal, as Luke Donald pointed out this week.

“In fact, I think it is brutal even when you are in the top 50 and can count the majors and the World Golf Championships on both the European and PGA Tours. There is still a lot of back and forth across the Atlantic. But Europe is my home. I know a lot of guys have made their homes over there – most of them younger than me – but my feeling has always been to stay here as much as possible. I’ve always been more Europe, whereas those other guys are slightly more America. I’m probably 60-40 in favour of Europe.”

Whatever he eventually decides, it is safe to assume one of the determining factors will be the Ryder Cup. Having tasted the unique atmosphere of the matches once, Donaldson wants more.

“It is like nothing else we play in,” he confirms. “The adrenaline running through my body was like nothing I’d felt before. The people make it so unbelievable. When I walked out of that tunnel, I glanced up at what seemed to be the whole world looking at me. I felt like running on to the tee. I didn’t, of course, but just standing there was an amazing experience.

“In a weird way, the whole week was like being an amateur again, as far as the team bonding was concerned. I played a lot of team golf as an amateur. I loved being part of the Welsh side at the Home Internationals. It was such a brilliant environment, the lads getting together for a proper crack. It was great fun.

“All of which is perhaps why I felt so comfortable at Gleneagles. Lee Westwood was a great help too. He was so chilled. And that rubbed off on me. We got on the first tee and he told me we didn’t have to do too much, just hit the fairways and the greens. Par golf wins foursomes matches more often than not, he said. So we went out, shot four under and won on the last. He was kidding me on.”

There’s that smile again. One of the good guys.