Luke Donald interview: I had dinner with Michael Jordan – he tipped Europe to win the Ryder Cup

Luke Donald playing at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth - Luke Donald interview: I had dinner with Michael Jordan – he tipped Europe to win the Ryder Cup
Luke Donald has looked across the sporting world for inspiration before the Ryder Cup - PA/Zac Goodwin

Whatever positives Luke Donald gets to take from this week’s Ryder Cup, the very least the unassuming Englishman can claim is that his captaincy has inspired America’s best-known cheerleader - and perhaps that nation’s most competitive sporting icon - to back the home side for the victory.

“I had dinner with Michael Jordan a few weeks ago,” Donald says. “And he tipped the Europeans to win. But don’t tell the US team that.”

Jordan attended his first Ryder Cup in 1997 and in the intervening quarter-of-a-century has become a rather large and omnipresent mascot. In 2012, he famously gave Ian Poulter “a little jab in the chest” on a fairway as The Postman was delivering yet another point and four years later Davis Love III made the Starred and Striped love-in official when appointing the basketball legend as vice-captain.

Yet for the first time in 26 years, Jordan will not be present in Rome. “He’s not coming,” Donald says. “He told me something has come up.”

Maybe Jordan - Stateside’s paradigm of the ultimate “winner” - has finally become exasperated at being connected to failure, having on six occasions seen his side lose on foreign soil as the US void in Europe has stretched to 30 years.

And maybe MJ has seen Donald, his friend and neighbour in South Florida, preside over a cause that appeared hopeless when he was installed as an emergency replacement for the LIV-defector Henrik Stenson, but now 14 months on has been transformed into a mission filled with progression and optimism.

When Donald picked up the reins, Europe had one representative in the world’s top five. They travel on Monday to Marco Simone Golf and Country Club with three in the top four. Viktor Hovland has made emphatic strides, while Ludvig Aberg has emerged from nowhere. Based on their last 10 tournaments, each of Donald’s dozen seems in form.

Luke Donald playing at the 2012 Ryder Cup - Luke Donald interview: I had dinner with Michael Jordan – he tipped Europe to win the Ryder Cup
Luke Donald playing alongside Lee Westwood at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah - Getty Images/Jamie Squire

“Yeah, we’ve been trending quite nicely,” Donald says. “They are playing well and I like our team make-up. We have some superstars; we have a lovely core of great players and then we have some youngsters with huge potential. The future is bright and kind of anything’s possible with these guys.

“But we are coming off the worst loss we’ve ever had and the Americans are going to be betting favourites. We will never underestimate the Americans. They are very strong and they have some great partnerships, winning partnerships. They have partnerships that you know, 85 per cent to 90 per cent win rate, which is unheard of. So, our hands are full, but I certainly feel pretty, pretty good.”

Doesn’t he just. From being rejected for the role first time around, Donald has made the most of his unexpected opportunity and Jordan, Netflix’s star of The Last Dance, knows all about the possibilities of a second chance.

“It’s not my style to go down that path,’ Donald replies when asked if he was bitter when Stenson was selected. “I was disappointed, I then got given the second opportunity and I planned to make the most of it. When I got the call, there’s a mixture of excitement and ‘wow, can I do this? Am I ready? Can I suddenly be the captain at this age? I was 44.”

The answer was a resounding yes and although, of course, a player will naturally praise his skipper before a match, Rory McIlroy has been impressed. “Luke’s been fantastic. I mean, he took the job in very weird circumstances but he’s taken it in his stride,” McIlroy said. “We’ve been really pleased with the job he’s done in getting it back on track.”

Except, in Donald’s eyes, this has not been a salvage operation and will not be hiding behind any breakdown. Jordan will recognise the steel in his regular golf partner, a conviction that belies the quiet exterior. There is a no-excuse philosophy awaiting in that Rome teamroom.

Michael Jordan at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris - Luke Donald interview: I had dinner with Michael Jordan – he tipped Europe to win the Ryder Cup
Michael Jordan at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris as a spectator - AP/Alastair Grant

“MJ is right,” Donald says. “You have to have some ruthlessness and you have to be ready. I mean, I’m very much a detail oriented person. I’m not an off-the-cuff kind of person. There has to be a plan in place. There has to be steps. How are we going to get there?”

“Look, I don’t think about losing. You prepare the best you can, you go out and take care of what you can and hopefully the winning takes care of itself. I know I’ve been in the role for 14 months, but this has been a two-year process. I mean, I had conversations with Paul McGinley on the Sunday night at Whistling Straits about what needed to change.”

Donald has taken advice from a wide-range of captains, including Padraig Harrington, the 2021 captain who oversaw that record 19-9 reversal. Thomas Bjorn (2018) and Jose Maria Olazabal (2012) are two of his assistant captains and Donald even went as far to phone Peter McEvoy, “my captain for two Walker Cups”.

Yet it is Bernhard Langer, his first leader in 2004, from whom he has taken most guidance. And not just from a phone call but from the detailed notes the young 26-year-old rookie wrote down in a journal that week in the rousing win in Detroit.

“I’m impressed with how much detail he had back then because the few stats available are nothing like as thorough as now,” he says. “I wake up often in the middle of night with a lot of thoughts and write it down and think to myself ‘am I remembering this right?’ He did an amazing job. We all felt very comfortable as individuals playing for him. I knew where I stood, knew what I needed to do, knew my role. I believe that clarity, that consistency is really important. They’re the traits that I’ve been trying to embody.”

Donald is not the sort to brag, but his players should know about his Ryder Cup playing record. He appeared in four matches, was on the winning team four times and his individual winning ratio was 70 per cent, the best of any golfer who has played in four or more matches since 1979, when GB&I became Europe. Donald was world No 1 in four different spells, collectively for more than a year. But the humbleness resounds.

“I’ve had a pretty solid individual career, had some wins [17] and the world No 1” he says. “But you know, the moments I had with those team-mates stick with you longer. You remember those more because of that shared culture that you get to experience with each other. That’s why this would be the greatest moment in my career.”