Luke Donald knocking on an Open door
The world No.1's record of 15 top-ten finishes in 17 tournaments means he has to be a serious contender for the Claret Jug, if only he can rediscover the links play of his youth
WIND THE clock back eight years. Luke Donald is 25 years old, better known in his adopted land of America, where the likes of Tom Watson and Davis Love III have been eulogising him, than he is at home in Britain. It is the Monday of Open championship week 2003 and he is on the links at Royal St George's all on his lonesome. He is looking at the galleries who are looking at his bag in an attempt to identify him. He can see what they're thinking. "Who's this guy? Ah, Luke Donald! So that's what he looks like."
The last time the Open was at St George's, Donald was drawn with Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia for the opening two rounds. He spent the first five minutes of his first round looking for Tiger's ball, carved into the deep rough and lost forever. He was nervous. Shot 76, 79 and missed the cut at the Open for the fourth consecutive time. People said, 'Don't worry, Luke. With your history on the links you'll win this soon enough'. Eight years on, he's still waiting.
For a brief moment in time Donald was considered a demon of links play. At the Walker Cup at Nairn in 1999 he won all four of his matches and was referred to by his team-mates - Paul Casey among them - as the Silent Assassin. He said back then that his ambition was to "become the best player in the world and have no limelight, that would be my ideal scenario." He's not far off, is he? He's world No.1 but he's nobody's idea of a superstar. That suits him. Going back to St George's this week he knows the way it is going to be.
"The main attraction is Rory (McIlroy]," he says. "Absolutely. He's the man in form after a tremendous performance in the US Open. The way he did it was very special. It's a goal of mine to go out and win a tournament like that, where I'm going away from the field. In the past I've always slipped up for a round here or a few holes there and Rory didn't do that. He kept his foot on the pedal. Obviously, he's very much the favourite, especially in the eyes of the punters.
"It was impressive to watch him play as well as he did. It's not that hard to play one or two rounds very well, but to play the four rounds and not really go through a real stretch of one or two holes where he struggled was very impressive. It just gives me the knowledge that it can be done. I thought after three rounds that he had it in the bag. You could see the confidence. He just looked a little bit different than he did at Augusta in that final round. When I saw him at the Masters on the range on the Sunday, he looked a little bit uptight, a little bit nervous.
Not that I saw him before my final round (at the US Open at Congressional, where Donald was a lowly 45th, I was probably already at the airport, but his demeanour was different. I watched the last few holes and he looked very comfortable."The run of form that has taken Donald to world No.1 has been exceptional in its own way. Two wins, nine top-fives and 15 top-tens in his last 17 tournaments. Think about that. He's been top-ten in 15 of his last 17 events! Given his results of late he demands a place on any short-list at St George's. Given the kind of course St George's is, he really ought to be high up on that short-list. The difficulty of St George's is not its length - irons off many tees will be the order of the week if it stays dry - but the demand it places on accuracy and strategy and the way its nuances, its quirky little bounces and breaks, can mess with your head. Ernie Els once said the place is so bumpy that sometimes he felt that being there was like playing on the moon. "It's a different game at St George's," Greg Norman, a great champion at Sandwich, said in the past. "Believe it or not, this is not one of my favourite Open courses but it's probably one of the best. It's a shotmaker's course. You can play snooker on some of the fairways; they're firm and fast and the ball rolls off the knobs and knolls. Your thought processes are working every time you walk on to the tee."
Donald is among the bookies' picks for the week, but is there real confidence in his ability to get in the hunt? Not as much as you'd expect, given his record in the Open championship. "I did enjoy St George's when I played it at the start of the week," he said. "I felt like length wasn't really an issue. It was more of a positioning golf course and relying on good putting and short game. So those are the kind of things that hopefully will play into my hands."
But his form at the Open? It's wretched. Ten appearances and five missed missed cuts (in his first five attempts). He was 52nd at St Andrews in 2005, 35th at Hoylake in 2006, 63rd at Carnoustie in 2007, didn't play in 2008 and, mercy of mercies, showed some form at last in the last two years, finishing fifth and 11th at Turnberry and St Andrews.
"I'm very disappointed with my Open record, yeah. I think I missed something like five cuts in a row. At first, when I was an amateur, it was good just to get near the cut and then as I became a professional it became disappointing every time I got very close to making the weekend (and didn't make it]. You look back and wonder what could I have done differently. It's something I think about every week and I think just having spent so much time in the US, it was a hard transition for me to come to the Open. Coming over early (the last few years] and doing some preparation and practice on links golf has helped."
The craving for a major is what drives him, though. Not the world rankings, not the run-of-the-mill tour events. The majors."It's always the goal. I've said in the past that someone like Phil Mickelson, who has not risen to the No.1 ranking ever, I would swap my record for his. Being world No.1 means there's more expectation from the media and from the fans. But it doesn't really change what I'm doing and I don't approach the game any differently whether I'm No.1 or No.100. I didn't play that great at the US Open, but probably wouldn't put that down to the pressures of being No.1. I put that down to a little bit of mismanagement of my schedule leading up to the US Open. I felt like I played those four tournaments in a row in three different countries (America, England and Spain] and being in contention kind of tired me out a little bit. I just didn't quite have enough energy in me."
He says he has the energy now, but has he got the know-how? It's a question that will addle his brain until he reconnects with his younger self, the kid who conquered Nairn before he took the world. ?
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