Life is pretty good for Jamie Donaldson just now. A winner of two European Tour titles - both in the last two years - the Welshman is also camped firmly within the top 50 of the world rankings and is all but guaranteed to make his Ryder Cup debut at Gleneagles later this year.
All of which makes it extraordinary to think the now 38-year-old was ranked as low as 696th no more than seven years ago. And as he toiled and travailed amongst the lower reaches of the Challenge Tour rankings, struggling to make ends meet, Donaldson found himself at the crossroads every golfer dreads: give up or soldier on.
“I kind of lost my way after having an injury in 2004 and ended up losing my card at the end of 2006,” he recalls in an exclusive chat with bunkered. “As a result, I found myself on the Challenge Tour in 2007 and started off the year with a three-week swing in South America.
"It was a case of either pull the finger out and make some changes or find something else to do.”
“I thought I hadn’t done too badly, finishing about 30th in each event, but it was only afterward that I realised I’d lost money. I’d only earned about €1,900. So, that was an eye-opener. It makes you think, ‘Hang on a minute - I’m playing okay, not amazing, but okay, and yet I’m losing cash.’ When that happens, it’s a bit of a shock to the system and makes you think that this job that I’m doing isn’t working. I thought I’d have to do something else. It genuinely got to the point where I contemplated giving it up. When what you do for a living doesn’t pay the bills, you can’t carry on. I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, I’m struggling here.’ It was a case of either pull the finger out and make some changes or find something else to do.”
Admitting that he has no idea what he would have done, Donaldson recalls how he stayed out in South America for the final week of the trip. As it turned out, it was a week in which the direction of his career spun on a dime. The event was the Guatemala Open and, four sub-70 rounds later, he’d won his first professional title in six years, as well as a very timely cheque for over €18,000.
“There were no big crowds even though I was out with the local favourite,” he remembers. “But none of it mattered. All that mattered was that I’d won. It’s funny how things turn out. Just one week earlier, I was thinking I’d have to pack it in and do something else. Then, all of a sudden, everything clicked into place and I ended up winning. After that, I was off and running.”
There was no real secret to the change in Donaldson’s fortunes; just a different approach.
“You’ve just got to find things that work and then work hard at them,” he says. “That’s all it is. There’s no magic formula. It’s just about figuring out what works for you and then working hard on it and having the drive to improve.
“Losing my card made me realise that the things that I’d been doing hadn’t been working and so I decided it was time to do the opposite.”
Buoyed by winning in Guatemala, Donaldson finished fourth on the Challenge Tour rankings in 2007 and, in doing so, sealed his return to the main tour at the first time of asking. In the four years that followed, he consolidated his status and, indeed, improved his position on the Race To Dubai each season. But the one thing that was missing was a victory.
"It was the validation that the changes and decisions I’d made all those years ago had been the right ones."
”“I was playing well and had been having lots of top tens but I just couldn’t seem to break through,” he says. All that changed on July 1, 2012 at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
Watched by a sell-out crowd of 130,000, Donaldson took a one-shot lead into the final round and, 18 holes and 66 blows later, he ran out a comfortable four-shot winner.
“It was a long time coming,” he reveals. “After all those years in the wilderness, not knowing what I was doing, it was brilliant to finally stand there as a European Tour winner. And to do it at Royal Portrush made it even more special. It was like winning the Open, with 130,000 people there or whatever it was. It was incredible. It was the validation that the changes and decisions I’d made all those years ago had been the right ones.”
Donaldson didn’t have to wait long for his second win, which arrived in January 2013 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
“I knew the importance of getting another win as soon as possible, so Abu Dhabi was great and opened a few more doors for me,” he says. “The only way you seem to get anywhere in this job is by winning tournaments. If you don’t, it’s very difficult to make headway.”
It is testament to Donaldson’s commitment to improving and battling character that he is now considered a genuine contender at just about every tournament he enters. That, he says, is a reputation he’s more than comfortable with.
“I’ve always believed in myself, and certainly since I made changes, I’ve known what I’m capable of doing but I feel like I’ve still got loads more to give,” he argues. “I don’t feel like I’ve peaked or that I’ve had my last win or whatever. I’ve always believed that I can do this. I played and competed against the best players in amateur golf. It’s just that, for whatever reason, I hadn’t been doing it as a pro until the last five or six years. But these things take time. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you’ve got to be patient, keep working hard and, eventually, doors will open.
"I’ve been getting better every year since 2008."
“I mean, okay, I’m 38 and I know that some people might think that I’ve been late to get there. But I feel pretty fit, I’m active, and I’ve been getting better every year since 2008. So, if I can keep continuing that curve then there’s no reason why my best years aren’t still to come. It’s a long career. You only have to look at someone like Miguel Angel Jimenez to see that. So I’m excited about what’s still to come.”
One of the more immediate things Donaldson can be excited about is this year’s Ryder Cup match at Gleneagles. Barring an absolute calamity, he will make his debut for Europe in Perthshire in September. Sensibly, though, he’s refusing to dwell on that prospect.
“It’s very exciting but, to be honest, I’ve not really been thinking too much about it,” he admits. “I’ve been more focused on trying to complete my more immediate goals. It has been taking care of those things that has put me in such a good position for things like the Ryder Cup. As long as I keep playing well, those things will take care of themselves.”
Naturally, he would have loved to have been part of the action in 2010, when the Ryder Cup made its debut in his home country. Some people are sceptical about whether or not the match at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport has left any kind of real, tangible legacy but Donaldson is adamant that it has.
He says: “The Ryder Cup in Wales was massive. Speaking to some of the guys who were involved, they’ve said it was one of the best Ryder Cups they’ve played in. It was a famous win, too, which helps. The fact that it was even there is a massive positive. So many kids will have watched that happen on their doorstep and thought, ‘I want to play in that one day.’”
"It was an incredible victory for an incredible golfer."
When he makes his European debut later this year, Donaldson will become the first Welshman to feature in a match since Ian Woosnam captained Europe in 2006. Coincidentally, ‘Woosie’ is also the last man from the Principality to win a major, his victory in the 1991 Masters still etched firmly in Donaldson’s mind.
“I remember watching it in my front room at home,” he recalls. “It was an incredible victory for an incredible golfer. I’ve played with Woosie a few times over the years and he’s a top bloke.”
Given his excellent form over the past few seasons, Donaldson is, unsurprisingly, being widely tipped as the man to break Wales’ long drought in the game’s four biggest tournaments. His tie for seventh in the 2012 PGA Championship certainly demonstrated that he has the game to contend but, most crucially, he has the self-belief that he can do it.
“Can I win a major?” he asks. “Absolutely. Why not? My form’s been good for a while and I’ve been playing well in the big events so, again, as long as I stay patient and work hard, I have to believe that my time will come.”
- Jaime Donaldson in bunkered
This interview with Jamie Donaldson first appeared in issue 132 of bunkered (Published: July 2014)