Luke Donald jumped at a second chance to be Ryder Cup captain for Europe, taking over just 14 months before the 2023 matches in Italy without knowing whether players who sign up for the Saudi riches of LIV Golf will be available to him.
Donald only knew that unlike Henrik Stenson, stripped of the captaincy for signing up with the LIV Golf rival league, he wouldn’t be going anywhere.
“I’m giving you my word that I will be here for the next 14 months,” Donald said Monday in a video call. “I’m excited about this opportunity. I really am. The Ryder Cup means so much to me and I’m not going to take this lightly. So I will see you in Rome.”
Stenson, who pledged full support to the European tour in March when he was announced as captain, changed his mind four months later and signed with LIV Golf for what the Daily Telegraph reported to be a $50 million bonus.
Europe turned to Donald, a finalist for the job in March and a former world No. 1 who played on four Ryder Cup teams that all ended in a European celebration.
He compiled a 10-4-1 record. His last appearance as a player was in 2012 at Medinah, when he took down Bubba Watson in the lead singles match as Europe staged the greatest road comeback in Ryder Cup history.
Donald couldn’t have guessed then that it would be his last time playing the Ryder Cup. He went on to be vice captain for Thomas Bjorn in France and for Padraig Harrington last September at Whistling Straits, the only time Donald experienced losing.
Mostly, he remembers sitting next to Darren Clarke in the opening ceremony at Oakland Hills in 2004, his Ryder Cup debut. Donald said Clarke turned to him and said, “Once you play in one, you’ll never want to miss another.”
Stenson had other ideas, and it paid an immediate dividend when the Swede won in his LIV Golf debut on Sunday to collect $4 million, plus $375,000 for his team finishing second.
“Henrik has made his decisions and he’s got his reasons for it, and I’m not really here to judge that,” said Donald, a former NCAA champion at Northwestern with 13 victories worldwide. “I’m certainly excited about the opportunity, and when I found out I had a second chance, I grabbed at it, to be honest with you. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The 44-year-old Donald spent 56 weeks at No. 1 in the world in 2011 and 2012 while vying for the top spot in the ranking with Rory McIlroy. He also was the first player to capture the money title on the PGA Tour and European tour in the same year.
And now he gets a job that doesn’t figure to be easy. Some of the aging, longtime Ryder Cup players for Europe don’t see why their eligibility should be removed for playing on another circuit. A British judge issued a temporary stay that allowed four players to compete in the Scottish Open last month.
Europe has yet to announce its qualifying criteria or when it will start, which usually is about a year out from the late September 2023 matches at Marco Simone.
“Over the next few months, hopefully we’ll have some clarity on that situation,” Donald said.
Donald said he wasn’t the first captain to cope with trying times, citing Sam Torrance and Curtis Strange as captains when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks postponed the 2001 matches by a year, and Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker leading their teams as the United States was starting to ease COVID-19 protocols. Europe had hardly any fan support in Wisconsin because of travel restrictions.
Inside the ropes, the task is daunting. Donald takes over as Europe, the dominant team in the Ryder Cup for the last 25 years, is at a crossroads. A young and powerful U.S. team scored the biggest rout ever over Europe last September at Whistling Straits, winning 19-9.
“Sometimes failure can really motivate you, and I certainly know that the players will be motivated to win back that cup,” Donald said. “And I will be doing everything I can to get those guys in the right frame of mind to put us in a position.”
Zach Johnson is the U.S. captain for the matches at Marco Simone in Italy. The U.S. team from Whistling Straits has lost Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau. They all have gone at least 16 months since their last win.
Donald said Thomas Bjorn and Edoardo Molinari will stay on as vice captains.