GUIDONIA MONTECELIO, Italy — It seems there’s more to Luke Donald than meets the eye.
The man tasked with regaining the Ryder Cup for Europe this week has been called many things over the years.
Clean cut? This is a guy from the leafy, middle-class town of Hemel Hempstead 24 miles (39 kilometers) northwest of London, and has been nowhere near what could be described as a scandal.
One of the top European golfers of his generation? Well, he did spend a cumulative 56 weeks as the world’s No. 1 player, three times taking the top ranking away from Rory McIlroy. He has career earnings in the neighborhood of $50 million.
But ruthless? That doesn’t sound much like Donald.
“Luke doesn’t say much but when he says it, you listen,” said Shane Lowry, a member of the European team at the Marco Simone club outside Rome. “He’ll call the right shots. He’ll make the hard decisions.
“It’s a tough one for a captain coming into this event, maybe being friendly with players and playing golf with them over the years and then having to maybe leave them out, drop them, make tough decisions. Luke won’t be afraid to do that, and I think that’s what’s going to make him a great captain.”
Donald is something of an accidental captain for Europe.
The European tour’s leadership turned to the 45-year-old Englishman last year after Henrik Stenson made the bombshell decision to defect to LIV Golf for a reported $50 million. That ensured Stenson would be stripped of the Ryder Cup captaincy role he once described as “beyond his wildest dreams.”
Donald was seen as a safe pair of hands in turbulent times, someone seemingly far from the potential clutches of the Saudi-funded breakaway series and a guy who would gain the immediate respect of the European players.
“He took the job in very weird circumstances,” McIlroy said, “but he’s taken it in his stride.”
It’s not the first time Donald has shown a great sense of timing.
He was among the players to benefit from the downfall of Tiger Woods from personal issues at the end of 2009, which ultimately led to the American losing the No. 1 ranking he had held for more than five years.
Donald claimed that spot in May 2011 by winning the BMW PGA Championship, staying there for the majority of the next 15 months amid the best period of his career.
Over 2011-12, he won three times on the PGA Tour and the European tour and became the first player to lead the money list on both sides of the Atlantic in the same season. What remained out of reach, however, was a major championship, the gaping hole on his résumé.
Donald also had a key role in the “Miracle at Medinah” at the 2012 Ryder Cup, winning the lead singles match against Bubba Watson to have a cascading effect on a European team that came from 10-6 down on the final day to win.
That left Donald with a personal record of 10.5 points from a possible 15, a 70% win rate that is the best of any European to have played at least three Ryder Cups.
Few could have imagined that would be his last time playing golf’s greatest team event. A combination of injuries and a failed attempt to change his swing for more length kept him from ever reaching those golfing highs again — as a player, anyway.
He was a vice captain under Thomas Bjorn for Europe’s victory in France in 2018 and after his only Ryder Cup loss — at Whistling Straits in 2021, again as an assistant to Padraig Harrington — he was fast-tracked to the top job earlier than he would have planned.
Donald said he has had to “adapt a little bit.”
“It’s a role where you have to sit down and talk to players and communicate and be open,” he said. “As an individual golfer, you kind of stay in your own lane a little bit more. So I’ve had to open up a little bit, enjoy it and embrace that role.”
In his bid to take down a powerful U.S. team that scored the biggest rout ever over Europe at Whistling Straits, he is leaning on gut instinct (his final pick of Nicolai Hojgaard over Adrian Meronk), numbers (vice captain Edoardo Molinari is a “genius when it comes to the stats,” according to Viktor Hovland) as well as sentimentality.
“I think Luke and his vice captains have really tapped into that emotional connection around Team Europe this week,” McIlroy said in a nod to Donald using the late Seve Ballesteros as an inspiration in the team room.
Donald has his wife — Diane, an American whom he met at Northwestern University — and three daughters with him in Rome. As important, for just this week, is the other family he has assembled in the European team room.
“We want to be create memories they will remember for a long time,” Donald said.