I use Mike Donald as a litmus test for anyone over the age of
27--anyone Tiger's age or older--who calls himself a golf bum, a
term I mean as high praise. I guarantee you that Woods, a serious
student of the game, knows about Statman, as Donald is known
because he always knows what everybody shoots. He was the
quintessential Tour workingman of the 1980s and '90s, but Donald
did one famous thing: He was runner-up at the '90 U.S. Open at
Medinah, outside Chicago, the year Hale Irwin needed 91 holes to
seal the deal. What I remember best about that Open was how
Donald, broken in defeat, held out his hand to congratulate the
winner while Irwin danced around in circles,
oblivious. Mike and I have been friends for a long time, but
whenever I'm with him, I learn something new about how that event
continues to dominate his life. Last week, when the Tour began
its timeworn four-week Florida swing--Doral, Honda, Bay Hill,
Sawgrass--Mike and I hung out for a few days, playing and
watching golf, eating clubhouse lunches on somebody else's dime.
"What do you think of Bobby Knight?" Mike asked me while we
waited on a tee one day. Mike's 47 now and has lived nearly all
his life in South Florida, where he's a legend. He's a member of
the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame, inducted on the same
night as Dan Marino.
"All I know is the chair-throwing. He seems like an ass."
"Let me tell you something," Mike said. "He comes up to me at a
charity event. He says, 'Mike, I'm Bob Knight. I wanted you to
know that sometimes in sports the guy who's supposed to win
doesn't win.' And I look in Knight's eyes, and he's got tears in
them." Mike is always doing this, challenging what you think you
Mike has made 296 cuts on Tour, but none since 2000. His game has
been lousy for years. He never married. His mother died in '91
and his father in '96, and he keeps on playing, although
sometimes he doesn't know why. Playing tournament golf only for
yourself, he says, is hard and unsatisfying. He's still a
dues-paying member of the PGA Tour, but he has no status on
either the regular Tour or the Nationwide tour. That doesn't
leave him with a whole lot to do, except hit balls daily, which
he does at a range across the street from his apartment, at the
TPC at Heron Bay in Coral Springs, where the Honda Classic had
been held for the past six years. He has earned $1.97 million on
the PGA Tour, with one win, the 1989 Anheuser-Busch Classic, and
still has the first nickel he ever made. So he's fine that way,
but he needs golf. On March 3 he played in the Monday qualifier
for Doral, at Emerald Hills in Hollywood, Fla., a course he has
played a hundred times. One hundred and sixteen golfers were
there, paying $400 each, competing for one of two spots. Mike
shot 68. Two guys shot 67. There's more heartache than anything
else in golf.
On the morning of March 5, while the pro-am was being played at
Doral, Mike and I met at a course called Ironhorse in West Palm
Beach. Mike wanted to get in a practice round for the Monday
qualifier for the Honda. Come Monday, one of the guys running
carts at Ironhorse--Kengo Honda, of all names--would be
practicing too. All across South Florida, there are hundreds of
guys like that, good golfers trying to catch lighting in a
bottle, hoping to shoot 60-something. Mike's different. He wants
to play the way he used to play.
In the Ironhorse pro shop, director of golf John Quinzi was
remembering the days he and Mike used to hit balls side by side,
30 or so years ago, at a public course called Orangebrook in
Hollywood. "You were in high school, working hard on your game,"
Quinzi said. "I thought, This kid's got something." Quinzi is
nine years older than Mike. Donald remembers Quinzi. He remembers
everything. He remembers the day in 1969 when his mom took him to
Doral. He was 13. On the 5th green, Bob Murphy missed a
three-footer. Coming off the green, he tossed the ball to Mike.
"Maybe you can do better with this than I can, pards," Murphy
said. Mike still has the ball, a Titleist K 2A.
I live in Philadelphia and before Wednesday hadn't hit a ball in
four months. That first whiff of March air in Florida, hot and
humid and breezy, was like a welcome back to golf. The players at
Doral, leaving behind the cool, dry air of the West Coast swing,
were saying the same thing. Mike was playing the Ironhorse course
beautifully. Into a cross-breeze and from 209 yards, he stiffed a
cut two-iron--with a forged Titleist blade loaded with lead
tape--that you could not hit in your dreams.
He kept talking about a guy on Tour with whom he had been playing
often lately, a player named Mike Sposa, who was in the field at
Doral. "I'm telling you, this kid Mike Sposa is a good player,
finished 132nd on the money list last year, but he hasn't been
able to finish," Donald said. "He keeps telling me about what
he's working on at the range, and I'm trying to tell this kid
that all that crap means nothing because what he has to do is
learn how to finish. Nobody can teach him that. He has got to
keep playing on Sundays and figure it out."
"How old is this Mike Sposa kid?" I ask.
Mike was 34 when he nearly won the Open. He shot a 71 that
Later that afternoon Mike and I played at Trump International,
bordered by a prison and an airport. In November, Annika
Sorenstam won the finale to the 2002 LPGA season at the Trump
course, and during that tournament Donald Trump invited me to
play there. Mike has played it a half-dozen times. He knows Bruce
Zabriski, who used to be the pro there and is now working for
Raymond Floyd on a course Floyd is building up the road. Mike
also knows the current pro at Trump, Lee Rinker, Larry's kid
brother, who played his way into last week's Doral field. He
knows the locker room attendant, Ed Kosinski, known in his days
as a Tour caddie as Falcon Eddie. In South Florida golf Mike
knows everybody, and all the real golf people (27 and older) know
him. Trump passes the litmus test. He knows Mike--his career,
Jim Fazio, Tom's older brother, designed the course, and he
happens to be playing in front of us. When we finish, Mike pays
the course a high compliment. "They could play a PGA Tour event
here tomorrow," he says. The Trump course is long, interesting,
wild, with a clubhouse three sizes too big. The Honda tournament
keeps moving around South Florida, but the chances of its moving
to Trump International are beyond slim. Honda uses the tournament
to sell cars. When you're in business with Trump, Trump is the
star. There's nothing about Trump International that says Honda.
Nobody's driving a Civic Hybrid there. In fact, on the phone
before our game, Trump suggests I take a look at the cars in his
parking lot. "You won't find better cars at any club in Florida,"
Trump says. He is probably correct. There's my Taurus from Hertz,
Mike's Acura and a fleet of high-end foreign cars, one of which
belongs to Floyd, a big, black shiny Lexus. The '86 U.S. Open
champion and the '90 runner-up shake hands and chat for a bit.
Mike congratulates Raymond on the marriage of his son Robert.
On Thursday, while the first round was being played at Doral,
Mike and I played a private club called Adios in Coconut Creek,
not far from Fort Lauderdale, but well inland. We would have
never gotten on the course, except that the club president, a guy
from Chicago who remembers the '90 Open well, is a fan of Mike's.
We had one other thing going for us: Arnold Palmer, an Adios
member and the designer of the course, arranged for us to play.
Palmer founded the club 20 years ago with a group of other men,
including the late Del Miller, the harness driver, Whitey Ford,
and the late Dave Thomas, who named his Wendy's hamburger chain
for his daughter. It's a men's club with a well-maintained and
unpretentious course that begins and ends with long par5s and a
manly clubhouse. By this I mean the sandwiches are big, there's a
prominent painting of Jackie Gleason, and there are many TVs.
Some famous athletes are members, including Cris Carter, Alex
Rodriguez and Carl Yastrzemski.
That the club is for men only doesn't bother either Mike or me.
In Philadelphia, my wife belongs to a women's club. I belong to a
men's club. Sometimes life is better that way. They're just
clubs, after all. On Augusta National and the Masters, Mike and I
differ. He blames Martha Burk for the mess. I put it all on
Hootie. He thinks Augusta National should fight it out. If I were
the boss, I'd ask a handful of women to join today.
At one point during our round, Mike came upon Marino, an Adios
member who usually breaks 80 and sometimes 70. The former
Dolphins quarterback passes the litmus test. "Mike," he calls
out, "missed that Doral qualifier by one, huh?"
After lunch--I had an Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) with
my sandwich and the waiter didn't have to ask me what I
meant--Mike and I drove over to the course where he played
hundreds of rounds as a kid, a short, simple public course with
shallow bunkers called Arrowhead, in the town of Davie. Two
hundred yards off the 1st tee there's a little bump in the
fairway, which Mike and his buddies called Sissy Ridge. His
mother would pick him up at the course every day, all year long.
Mike's father was a mechanic, and his mother owned a little shop
that sold ceramics. Mike, at his core, is working-class too, and
he appreciates the value of an earned dollar. In 1970 he caddied
for the winner, Bill Garrett, at an old Tour stop, the Coral
Springs Open Invitational. Garrett earned $25,000 and gave $800
to his 15-year-old caddie, who spent most of it on golf balls.
Last Friday, Mike and I went to Doral. "Man," Donald said, eyeing
a bleached blonde whose best days were far behind her. "She's
still out here? She was a Tour groupie 15 years ago." He caught
up with Sposa, saw the kid pure a bunch of shots and rattle off a
bunch of birdies, getting himself to three under par, red enough
to make the cut. Sposa started Sunday in 14th place, but shot 76
and finished 64th. A few spectators, the real golf bums,
recognized Mike. He ran into Murphy, working the tournament as a
commentator for NBC.
"Murph!" Mike said, 34 years after they first crossed paths
"Statman!" Murphy yelled back.
On Monday, Mike played in the Honda qualifier at Ironhorse, 156
players for two spots. If you want to know how Mike made out, do
what Mike does: Study the sports section agate type, get on the
Internet, live the game, obsess the game. Then you can call
yourself a golf bum too.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG SO CLOSE Donald today (right) is still affected by his run at the 1990 U.S. Open, at which Irwin (center) ended up taking the victory lap.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (LEFT) [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: CHARLES BENNETT/AP (CENTER) [See caption above]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG DRIVEN Donald can still go low, but after falling a shot short in the Doral qualifier, he was relegated to casual rounds.
COLOR PHOTO: WILFREDO LEE/AP NEVER ON SUNDAY Sposa (below) faded again with a final-round 76 at Doral, the first stop on the Florida swing.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG [See caption above]
He has made 296 Tour cuts, but none since 2000. He keeps playing,
although sometimes he doesn't know why.
In South Florida golf Mike knows everybody, and all the real golf
people know him. Trump passes the test.