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

August 08, 1999

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 that'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 L.A., 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.

On a Wednesday afternoon last month Donald and I were talking on
the phone--I was in Philadelphia and he was at home in
Hollywood--and as we were hanging up Donald said, "I think I'll
fly to Milwaukee today. I'm first alternate for the Greater
Milwaukee Open and have a shot at getting in." The next day I
called the press tent at Brown Deer Park and learned that Donald
had teed off in the first round at 7:39 a.m. and shot 67, four
under. Turns out he did it on four hours of sleep. He's still
got game. He made the cut, shot 71-72 on the weekend and took in
$4,416, pushing his career earnings to nearly $2 million.

After Milwaukee, Donald went home for a couple of days, then
came to Philadelphia for two days of golf. He had never played
Merion or Pine Valley, and through the kindness of friends I
arranged for him to play those courses. His appreciation for the
fine things in the game is profound.

On the way from the airport to Merion, I asked him who had
caddied for him in Milwaukee. "Some guy I found there," he said.
"He was Mexican. He barely spoke English, which was perfect."
Donald is old school. He doesn't want a caddie giving him
yardages and lines and advice and encouragement. He wants to do
it all on his own. Working with Dickinson was ideal because all
Dickinson did was move Donald's ball position around and ask,
"Now how does that feel?"

Donald loved Merion. He played it from the tips, including the
two new back tees, and felt it was plenty long enough to serve
as an Open venue. He's a student of Opens as well as a part of
Open history. At one point during the round he said, "Now, who
won Opens here? Hogan in a playoff. Trevino in the playoff
against Nicklaus. David Graham in '81. I wonder how many people
remember that? Seems like nobody. And Jones, right? Or was that
the Amateur?" That was the Amateur.

Over dinner the subject turned to fathers, and Donald told of
his father's final days. Bill Donald grew up in North Carolina,
the son of an illiterate sharecropper. Shortly before Bill died,
with no knowledge that he was sick, he drove around the country
visiting friends and relatives. When he returned home to
Hollywood, Mike suggested that they go fishing off the nearby
Dania Beach Pier. It was something they had done often when Mike
was a kid, and something they had not done together in 15 years.
They fished. They caught nothing. The next day, Bill died.

Later, Donald told the story of how he had spent the night
before the playoff against Irwin. Mike and his younger brother,
Pete, who was caddying for him, were sharing a hotel room. As
Mike was unwinding from Sunday's round, the phone rang. On the
other end was a prominent agent, a man Mike had talked to about
representing him. "He says, 'I'm going to fly in tomorrow.' I
say, 'Why are you coming?' He says, 'If you win tomorrow, you're
going to need me.' I thought, If I win the only thing I'm going
to need is a limo and a map. He didn't come, but it was one more
thing on my mind that I didn't need.

"After the playoff he became my agent. Two months later, the
week of the Memphis tournament, a week before the PGA, he got me
a deal to play in Sweden for a $35,000 appearance fee and all
expenses paid for my parents to join me. They had a great time,
but I played horribly. I felt the whole time that I shouldn't
have been there. I should have been playing Memphis, on a course
I played well. I should have been getting ready for the PGA
Championship. To be honest, I felt like a whore. I never played
good golf again."

The next day we played Pine Valley. He loved it. Our host would
suggest lines for his tee shots, but Donald paid no heed. The
man is an iconoclast. He needs to be self-reliant and has little
patience for people who are not. That day he went on a tirade
about psychologists and swing gurus.

He told of his brush with the ultimate guru, Ben Hogan. Once,
Donald pushed Dickinson into taking him to see Hogan,
Dickinson's hero and probably the greatest U.S. Open player
ever. They saw Hogan at Shady Oaks, in Fort Worth. Dickinson
introduced Donald as the runner-up in the '90 Open, to which
Hogan replied, "Oh. That's too bad." Hogan had no reason to care
and didn't. The three men spent two hours together, and then
Dickinson said, "We're going to leave now and do some
practicing." Hogan said, "I was wondering what you were doing
here." To Donald, that's about as much as any guru can give a
guy. After you know that, and Donald has known that forever,
you're on your own.

To most people--not Hogan--being a runner-up in a U.S. Open is
an amazing accomplishment. Sometimes Donald needs to be reminded
of that. During his Philadelphia trip, he was. At Merion he met
a woman who remembered the playoff at Medinah but not the
details. Mike reminded her of the outcome. "Well," said the
woman, "it's nice to have been there."

"You know what?" Donald said, as if he were hearing something
new. "You're right."

The other day I asked him if he would have any advice for the
man who finishes second at Medinah next week. How do you live
with thoughts of what might have been? "I'd tell the guy to stay
the course, man," he said. "Everything else may look boring
after you've been in contention for a major--and you may never
be again--but the only way you will be is if you keep doing what
you're doing. You've got to play the way you think is the right
way. That's easy to say. It's not easy to do."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN VAN HOOK Old friends Much has changed in Donald's life since the 1990 Open at Medinah, but he still plays with his ancient Wilson Staff irons. COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Near miss Donald has only one complaint about his playoff loss to Irwin (above) in the Open. COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS Still swinging Donald has played in three Tour events in '99, finishing 73rd in the recent Greater Milwaukee Open.

"I don't know anybody like me," Donald says. "I've got no boss,
no job, no wife, no children, no girlfriend."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)