x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Luke Donald and Michael Jordan make a most unlikely twosome

But golf and the desire to be great at what they do have turned neighbours into good friends, writes Steve Elling.

Luke Donald, left, and Michael Jordan have been friends and fierce competitors since 2006. Stan Badz / PGA Tour
Luke Donald, left, and Michael Jordan have been friends and fierce competitors since 2006. Stan Badz / PGA Tour

The publicly circulated photos depict an odd couple, totally mismatched physically – perhaps psychologically, too.

A mere mortal at 175 centimetres, golf’s former world No 1 Luke Donald looks Lilliputian when positioned next to basketball legend Michael Jordan, who stands about 203cm in his golf spikes.

In terms of temperament, Jordan is often an over-caffeinated extrovert, especially compared to Donald, a quietly deferential Englishman who is unfailingly polite.

Appearances can sometimes be deceiving.

Set to become neighbours in the United States next month when Donald’s new home at South Florida’s private Bear’s Club is completed, their friendly rounds together over the years not only have been both colourful and mutually beneficial – aside from the occasional lightening of Jordan’s wallet – but darned insightful.

It is not often that two sports figures who have climbed to the top of their very different crafts become friends, because there often is not enough oxygen in the room to sustain both egos.

Yet the two have gleaned plenty from each other, despite the chasm between their personas, point of origin and game of preference.

“Our desire to be great is similar,” said Donald, 36. “He shows his much more outwardly. Mine burns a lot deeper and I keep it to myself.”

Mostly, anyway. Donald, one of the most introspective players in golf, can turn up the volume when he must. When playing Jordan, it is a defensive necessity.

To wit: “I’m always happy to empty his wallet,” Donald said.

Jordan was already on his way to becoming the NBA’s greatest player with the Chicago Bulls when Donald enrolled at Northwestern University in Chicago 17 years ago.

Jordan, whose team twice won three NBA titles in succession, eventually fell in love with golf and started hanging around with Tiger Woods, making friends on the PGA Tour in the process.

Jordan has served as assistant captain for the US team in Presidents Cup matches and as a mascot of sorts at the Ryder Cup, where he frequently walks along inside the ropes chatting with equally star-struck fans and players.

“He still has an amazing aura and the fans can’t believe their eyes when they see him,” Donald said.

They first played together at Chicago’s highly regarded Bob O’Link Golf Club in 2006, at which point, they began to take the measure of each other. Which is not a height joke, per se.

“There wasn’t much talking that time,” Donald said. “I think he was sizing me up.”

The guy is hardly “err Jordan” on the course, since he carries a single-digit handicap and routinely breaks 80. At the US team competitions, Jordan has often been solicited for advice by the US golfers. Make no mistake, when a five-time most-valuable player talks about how to gain a competitive edge, Donald’s antennae goes up, too.

One of Jordan’s pearls: “Break down your goals into smaller parts that are achievable,” Donald said. “Put all those parts together and you can achieve your goal.”

A primary objective when playing alongside Jordan is surviving the auditory onslaught. Jordan, who turned 50 last year, is legendary for his sledging, to borrow the cricket term.

“He plays mind games, talks a lot, tries to figure out how to break you down a little,” Donald said.

Even for a player as stoic as Donald that can only be beneficial. After all, stress for professional golfers comes in many forms. Unlike Jordan, they cannot pass a Titleist to a teammate.

“Anytime you make practice simulate real golf, the better,” Donald said. “If Jordan or whoever is in my ear, it adds pressure and makes it more real. That can only be a good thing.”

It is not a one-way conversation, either.

“He’s often asking for swing tips, especially with his short game,” said Donald. “He’s a much better bunker player now.”

Donald, who finished fifth in the Race to Dubai season finale in November and won the following week in Japan, said the biggest benefit of his friendship with Jordan is absorbing his infectiously competitive spirit.

“It’s nice to be around him, because he has that winning attitude,” Donald said. “Anytime you have that competitive atmosphere, it helps your focus.”

After a strong finish to last season, Donald’s vision could become increasingly acute as 2014 plays out and the swing changes he made last year take root.

Besides, with the Englishman’s new Florida abode about to be completed, he could be seeing more of MJ than ever.

“We are practically next-door neighbours,” Donald said.

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