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Lowry, Donald and Connors: An unlikely three-ball in a Slovak classroom

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I was on a short five-minute break between classes when the message came in. Ordinarily, I’d take a quick glance, but replies that are anything other than urgent can usually wait. But this one caught my attention. “If [Shane] Lowry retired tomorrow, who had a better career – Lowry or Luke Donald?” 

Now, not only am I a golf scribe but I’m currently living abroad, teaching English as a second language to mostly adult students. And like most teachers, I have emergency lesson plans in my locker. Something which is a break from the norm, and will generally keep the students busy enough to afford the teacher time to attend to other, more pressing matters. As I say, for emergencies. Like discussing the merits of Lowry and Donald’s careers, for example.  

One of my emergency lessons is a little different, let’s say, and oddly enough, involves Irish travellers. Being Irish, Ireland is a popular topic of conversation in my classroom, with the students inquiring into everything from why we drink Guinness to the potential consequences to the Irish economy of a hard Brexit. And like most teachers, I am an accomplished bluffer to the extent that I am now regarded as something of an expert on British and Irish economics – something I never closely resembled when I lived there, let alone when I’m a good 2,000 kilometres away. 

Anyway, the subject of Irish Travellers arose in one of my lectures and, against all odds, I wasn’t the one to raise it. Since 2011, the sunny lakes of Senec (about a half-hour from Bratislava and an hour from Vienna) have been visited by hordes of Irish Travellers who arrive in August, set up camp along the shores and, according to my students and most articles that I’ve been able to find online, aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by local residents and business owners. And every year their colourful presence creates front page news. 

Suffice to say, my students were intrigued as to the who, what and why of these nomadic visitors. So my lesson? Well, hook my laptop to the projector, set John Connors’ I am Traveller rolling, inform them that there’ll be a discussion afterwards, and sit at the back of the classroom and silently debate the Donald/Lowry conundrum. 

It was a good question. My knee-jerk reaction was to say Donald, but momentary hesitation was indication enough that there was a legitimate argument to be had. 

Donald has 17 professional victories, was an order of merit winner on both major toursmade four Ryder Cup appearances (of which Europe won all four), and spent 56 weeks as the world’s top ranked player. But of course, there is one glaring omission from Donald’s resume. Eight top-10 finishes at major championships, but no wins.  

Lowry has five tour wins (four as a pro and one as an amateur), has yet to appear in a Ryder Cup, has a best placed finish of fourth, achieved this year, on the European Order of Merit and a best of 33rd on the PGA Tour points rankings, and has never been higher than 17th in the world. But of course, the Offaly man won his maiden major championship in dramatic fashion at Portrush this year. 

So, who’s had it best? 

There is no doubt that major titles are what professional golfers covet most, and to win one usually means overcoming more than 100 of the best players in the world, but it is possible to go from relative journeyman to major champion with one week of great play and great fortune. But to become the world number one is a completely different challenge. At any given time, there could be four separate major title holders, but only one numero uno 

The official world golf rankings are in their 34th year, and since their inception, just 23 players have held the top spot. 23! And in that time, 82 different players have won major titles. Players like Phil Mickelson have never held the top spot. This isn’t to say that a spell at number one should outrank a major title, but it should at least be similarly valued.  

Donald and compatriot Lee Westwood hold the unfortunate distinction of being the only two players to have held the top ranking without a major title to boot. But if major titles are to outrank everything else, then Mike Weir, Todd Hamilton, Ben Curtis, Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel, Michael Campbell and Lucas Glover all have had superior careers to Donald and Westwood.  

And by the same logic, Angel Cabrera’s career would outweigh those of Jim Furyk, David Duval, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Justin Thomas.  

For the casual fan who watches golf four times a year (maybe five if the Ryder Cup is on), majors are all that matters, but there is a reason that Rory McIlroy was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year by his fellow pros this year. They know just how hard it is to perform week after week, to consistently be on the first page of the leaderboard, even if you don’t get it done in the majors.  

Would Shane Lowry swap careers with Luke Donald, and with it the memories of what will surely be the greatest week of his life? Hardly. Or would Donald swap with Lowry, expunging those team experiences, and the knowledge that, career grand slam winners aside, he is a member of one of golf’s most exclusive clubs. Not likely either. 

So I guess this column cleared nothing up.  

And as for my class? After 50 minutes of John Connors, they’re more confused than ever. 

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