MEDINAH, Ill. — The Ryder Cup comes to Chicago for the first time, and it’s only fitting that the Windy City can claim one of the players as its own.
Luke Donald spent four years at Northwestern, winning an NCAA title and graduating with a degree in art. He married a local girl and never found reason to settle anywhere else. He lives on the North Side and suffers annually with Cubs fans. After the Ryder Cup, he and his wife will pick apples in the country for her birthday.
There’s only one catch — Donald is English.
The only “hometown” player in this Ryder Cup will be playing for the visiting team.
“Unique, isn’t it?” Donald said.
This is not the first time for a Ryder Cup held in the United States to include European players who make their primary home in America — Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Justin Rose (Orlando, Fla.), Paul Casey (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and Jesper Parnevik (Jupiter, Fla.) to name a few. But those are seen as golf communities. Chicago is among the world’s great sports cities, and it’s one of the best golf markets in America.
It is expected to be loud at Medinah when the matches begin Friday, and there is little doubt that will give the Americans a big edge in crowd support.
So where does that leave Donald?
“The way I look at it is the home team has the biggest advantage,” he said. “Just taking away 1 percent of the crowd support, that’s a help to our team. And that’s the way I’m looking at it. But, yeah, it’s kind of odd. I don’t play Medinah that much. I’ve played it twice in the last five weeks or something like that. I don’t really go there that much. Staying in a hotel 20 miles away from where you live is kind of strange, but that’s the way it goes.”
Donald will have support from more than just a few friends and family members. Europeans are coming across for the Ryder Cup, too, and you’ll be able to hear them singing around the first tee and belting out that “Ole, ole, ole ole” across the tree-lined course.
But it won’t quite be the same as what Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes heard at Valhalla in their native Kentucky, the reception Padraig Harrington and the Irish boys received at The K Club, Jose Maria Olazabal at Valderrama or Lee Westwood at The Belfry.
Donald is very much English. He just happens to love Chicago, which is why he never left.
He first saw the city during a brief recruiting trip in April. Donald got off the plane and saw snow covering the ground.
“I was wondering how I was going to play golf in college when it was still a little chilly out,” he said. “That was my first impression. And then my coach took me around to all the courses, just amazing golf courses. I had never seen anything like that coming from England. Also just amazed at college sports in general, just how big everything was. Our stadium was 55,000, and that was considered small in college sports. That’s a big Premier League football stadium in England.”
It was at Northwestern that he met his wife, Diane. They started getting serious right before he turned pro, while she was still a sophomore at Northwestern. That was enough reason to stay, though not the only reason. Donald remains with Pat Goss, his coach at Northwestern. His friends outside golf are in Chicago.
Most players turn pro and move to Florida, Texas or Arizona.
Donald used to stay with friends when he went to Florida in the winter to keep his golf game sharp. Now he has a house in Jupiter and plays out of The Bear’s Club when it turns cold up north. But his main home is Chicago. It’s been that way for years, and probably will be for some time.
“I think you become familiar with a place,” Donald said. “I had a lot of friends. My coach, Pat, was probably a big reason, too. I started dating Diane a couple months before I got my tour card, but we met when I was in college. I didn’t really have any reason to go anywhere else, other than the weather. But you always stay where you feel comfortable. And I felt very comfortable in Chicago.”
This isn’t the first time Donald is playing a Ryder Cup on American soil. He made his debut at Oakland Hills outside Detroit in 2004 as a captain’s pick, though not many paid attention. He had only one PGA Tour win at the time — the Southern Farm Bureau Classic — and three wins worldwide.
Donald only recently relinquished the No. 1 ranking to Rory McIlroy. Until then, he had been at No. 1 for a total of 56 weeks. Tiger Woods, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros are the only other players who had been No. 1 since the ranking format began in 1986.
Even now, Donald has an unassuming manner that doesn’t draw much attention. Heads don’t turn when he walks into a restaurant or shows up at an event.
Donald remains active with Northwestern, particularly the golf team. He is involved with The First Tee in Chicago, along with the Ronald McDonald house. They have two young daughters, but still take time to go to restaurants, sports events, along with arts shows and museums.
“We like blending in,” Diane Donald said. “Everything is so easy to get to in Chicago, and it has everything. It’s kind of funny because I felt like I waited my entire life to leave Chicago, and now we have a home in Florida that’s empty half the year. Luke loves being here.”
Only at Medinah, he won’t feel entirely at home.