How teenage Luke Donald unwittingly ended my golf dreams

I remember the moment I realised my childhood dream of winning The Open would remain just that.

I was 14 and I was good. But I was soon to discover I was not good enough. From the age of 7, I had dreamt of lifting the Claret Jug and seven years on I told myself that there was still hope.

“Nick Faldo did not pick up a club until he was 14 and you already play off 5,” I told myself.

“You are talented, you work hard on the practice ground, you can do this.”

Luke Donald as a young boy.

“If I can’t beat the guy who goes to school in the next town, Mum – how can I possibly win The Open?”

However, on that day at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Schools’ Championship at Sonning Golf Club, I was being outshone by my playing partner and I did not like it. I had heard that he was good before we walked on to the 1st tee, but he couldn’t be that good, could he?

He was small, pretty slight and didn’t hit the ball as far as me. Sure, he had a classic Hogan-esque swing, shaped the ball both ways and had a short game to die for, but I could deal with this guy. Or so I thought.

“Hi, I’m Ben Smith, good to meet you,” I said as we swapped scorecards before our round.

“Hi, Ben, I’m Luke. Luke Donald,” came the reply.

I played well that day. Really well. I drove the ball beautifully, my iron shots were pure, I even chipped and putted nicely. But it wasn’t good enough.

By the turn I was three shots behind Donald and what made my frustration all the more acute was that he was clearly upset with the way he was playing, despite being one under par. By the time we shook hands on the 18th, he was five shots better than me on the card and went on to win the tournament at a canter. And, as in turns out, many more to come.

I finished in the top five but I was disconsolate. My mum came to pick me up in the car and all I could say to her over and over again was: “If I can’t beat the guy who goes to school in the next town, how can I possibly think I could I win The Open?”

I often wish I could travel back in time to that point and tell my 14-year-old self that the young guy who I had finished five shots behind would go on to become the world’s No 1 golfer, the world matchplay champion and a Ryder Cup hero. Not to mention the £20 million-plus he has earned in prize money.

By the time I played in the same event a year later at Beaconsfield Golf Club, Donald was even better and my interest had begun to wane.

He left the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe to take up a golfing scholarship at Northwestern University in Chicago and the next time I saw him he was on the television and on his way to becoming one of only a handful of rookies to win $1 million (some £620,000) in his first season on tour.

What does it all mean? Well, it means I get to pretend and daydream that I could, perhaps, have also been a few shots behind Luke when he was World No 1. The truth, of course, is that Mr Donald may, in reality, have saved me at least a decade of frustration pursuing a dream that would have most likely ended with disappointment. But we can all dream, right?

This article was originally published in The Times of London when one of our Wandering Golfers, Ben Smith, was a sports writer and editor for the award-winning newspaper.

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