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So close to fame in '90, Donald now struggles

Published Oct. 9, 2005

His life would be so much different today if the events of three years ago had occurred just a little differently. What if that birdie putt on the 72nd hole found a way to go in? What if the long, 90-footer by Hale Irwin didn't?

Mike Donald ponders those circumstances often. He would be a U.S. Open champion, an exempt PGA Tour player through the rest of this decade, a millionaire.

Instead, he is struggling. He shot a bogeyless, 3-under-par 67 Saturday during the third round of the U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club to finish 54 holes at even-par 210. It was his best score in the tournament since the first round in 1990, the year he almost made history.

Donald did not win the U.S. Open at Medinah on Father's Day three years ago. He almost did with a birdie putt on the last hole. The next day, he went to an 18-hole playoff with Irwin and was tied after the round before Irwin finally won it with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 19th hole.

Now he is fighting for his golfing life, hoping to make enough money to keep his Tour card. A year after nearly winning his country's national championship, Donald didn't make enough money to keep the card. He went to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, got it back, then barely kept it last year by finishing 120th on the money list. The cut-off is 125th.

This year, he is 166th with only $36,121 in earnings in 18 tournaments. He has missed 10 cuts.

What happened?

"When I played well in the 1990 Open, I continued to play pretty good for the next six months," Donald said. "I almost won the Buick (Classic). But then my expectations changed. I was trying to play better than I am. I was trying so hard to be good. My game is to chip and scratch and get out there and try to jam 'em to death."

Donald, 37, who is single and lives in Hollywood, Fla., went through some difficult times dealing with the loss. Six months after he nearly won the Open, his mother, Pearle, died. He went through a lethargic 1991, and finds himself teetering on the edge when that victory would have meant longtime security.

"The difference between winning and losing is an inch," Donald said. "It's a putt that lips out instead of falling in. But in the way it's perceived, the difference is 10 miles.

"To be honest about it and without excuses, I wasn't chipping or putting very well. But then my mother's death it caused me to not play well. I was struggling. I had almost won an Open, and then I was playing to not lose my card. If you're playing to not lose your card, that won't work. I was playing defensively."

Donald's best year in 14 on the Tour was 1989, when he won his only tournament, the Anheuser Busch Golf Classic, and $430,322. He followed that with $348,328 in 1990.

This year, he had to make it through sectional qualifying in Purchase, N.Y., just to make the field.

"I haven't played well in a long time, so this feels good," he said. "In 1990, I got off to a fast start. I was only a shot out of the lead going into Saturday.

"Of course, if this was then, I wouldn't have even teed off yet."