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Donald’s last event before Q School was the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills in Colorado. Donald had been sick and lost 10 pounds in the week leading up to the event, so practice was limited, but I could see in his eyes he was ready to win the thing. We arrived four days early and prepared to be there beyond the 36-hole qualifier and into the match play portion. Donald drew an afternoon tee time the first day at Common Grounds, the off-site course used for the qualifier. We stepped on the tee at 1:30 pm as the second-to-last group, and the wind all of a sudden picked up to 25 mph. The gusts didn’t bother Donald as he shot one of the lowest scores of the afternoon, an even par round of 70.
The projected cut overnight was around even-par to plus-1. Donald came out the next day for his early tee time at Cherry Hills and made three birdies early, moving into the top 15. This was the dream start: with the top 64 players moving on to the match play, all we needed to do was maintain, survive and advance.
The ball does go far in Colorado, but the 260-yard 8th hole at Cherry Hills is still a serious par-3. Donald hit his tee shot into the bunker and left himself about a 40-yard bunker shot to the pin. As most top players know, this is a tough shot; what made it tougher was a slight lip that Donald had to get over, taking his pitching wedge out of play and forcing him to use his 60-degree. He hit the shot but the club didn’t get through the sand well and the ball stayed in the trap.
Out of frustration, Donald hit the sand to see why the ball didn’t come out like he thought, then splashed out of the sand to a couple of feet and two-putted. Donald sensed he had done something wrong in the bunker. On the next hole, he called an official over and explained how he touched the sand with his club on the previous hole. He wanted to make sure he assessed himself the right penalty.
I will say, in that situation, it was probably one of the classiest things I have seen in golf. I have caddied a lot for different players on the PGA and Champions Tours, and know from my own experience that we golfers are always trying to bend the rules to our advantage. To Donald, however, pursuing his dream meant doing it with integrity, no matter the outcome. For grounding his club in the sand, Donald assessed himself a two-stroke penalty, carded an 8 on that par-3, and missed the match play by two strokes.