Luke Donald Great Expectations

By Mercer BaggsJuly 13, 2005, 4:00 pm
The 2:47 a.m. ET tee time for the opening round of the 134th Open Championship:
 
Jack Nicklaus: 73 PGA Tour victories; 18 major championship victories; three Open Championship victories.
 
Luke Donald
Luke Donald will have a huge following Thursday and Friday, playing alongside Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
Tom Watson: 39 PGA Tour victories; eight major championship victories; five Open Championship victories.
 
Luke Donald: 2002 Southern Farm Bureau winner; one top-10 in a major; five missed cuts in five Open Championship appearances.
 
This may be the easiest game ever of 'Which of these three does not belong?'
 
This may be the closest that Donald ever gets to being lumped in with Nicklaus and Watson. But many in and around the game expect great things from the 27-year-old Englishman.
 
Those great expectations were cast on him before he ever turned professional. He twice led Great Britain & Ireland to victory in the Walker Cup, going 7-1 over the two competitions. He was a three-time All-America selection at Northwestern University, and the NCAA champion and top collegiate player in 1999.
 
I was one of the best players in college. And I came to the PGA Tour and just played OK, but was getting beaten a lot, every week for a couple of years, and wasnt really breaking through the way I imagined it, Donald said Wednesday on the eve of the Open.
 
And that affects your confidence a little bit.
 
Donald has encountered some success in the professional ranks, including a win in his rookie season on the PGA Tour. But it wasnt until last year that he began to resemble the Luke Donald that everyone envisioned.
 
Donald didnt win in the U.S., but he did pick up a pair of titles on the European Tour, which helped land him a spot on his first Ryder Cup team ' a victorious Ryder Cup team.
 
This year, though he has thus far taken the collar in the States, he has performed quite well in the top-tier tournaments.
 
Donald was runner-up at The Players Championship, where he held the 54-hole lead. He then tied for third at the Masters for his first top-10 in a major. He was four off the 36-hole pace at the U.S. Open, before a 74-80 finish sent him tumbling down the leaderboard.
 
His increased presence during the majors ' and the semi-major, combined with his amateur pedigree ' and the fact that England is longing for its next Nick Faldo ' equal a revival of those great expectations.
 
I dont really feel pressure. Obviously, theres a little bit more expectation on players like myself. Ive played well this year, he said.
 
I feel in the last couple of years, the limelight has been more on me, especially this last year. I think that just comes with the territory of playing well and moving up the world rankings.
 
Donald is currently the top-ranked Englishman in the world at 15th on the Official World Golf Ranking, which makes him one of the favorites this week to be the first European-born player since Paul Lawrie at this event in 1999 to win a major championship.
 
Then again, theres the matter of his dubious record in this championship.
 
Obviously, its not good at all. But (it's) something Im not thinking about this week, he said. I feel like Im a different player now. Im not coming here just to make the cut; Im coming here to win this championship.
 
The way Ive been playing the last couple of years is quite different than the years before that. I feel like Im a stronger player; I feel more confident. I feel like I can deal with these situations better ' major championships.
 
Donald, who employs a sports performance coach to help him on the mental aspects of the being a professional athlete, may be an Englishman, but hes certainly one who has been Americanized.
 
He still resides in the Chicago area, following his four-year stint at Northwestern.
 
Links golf ' as if his Open record didnt give it away ' is not his specialty.
 
The British Open is a little bit different kettle of fish, because we dont play very many links courses during the season. Its really the only tournament where we play a completely different golf course, he said.
 
I grew up playing some links golf, but Ive been over (in America) so much that my game is pretty much adapted to the U.S. style.
 
But if there is one Open venue where Donald feels some sort of comfort zone, its the Old Course at St. Andrews.
 
Thats probably the most familiar course of all the Open rotation courses. Ive played there a number of times, he said. I played it last year at the Dunhill Links. Ive played it in 2000 when the Open was back there, and Ive played a Palmer Cup there. I played the St. Andrews Links Trophy there, so Ive played it a lot more than any of the British Open courses.
 
Familiarity isnt the only thing that makes for a 15th club in his bag. He feels hes also hit that point in the learning curve where he can actually apply his past failures to help achieve success.
 
I feel link Im going to play my own game this week. Unless the conditions get so severe, so windy, you dont really need to adapt your game too much, he said. Maybe in the past Ive tried to adapt my game too much ' working on pitch and runs, and long putts from off the green, and that kind of stuff. I think if I can play to my strengths then Ill be well suited around here.
 
Donalds new approach will be put the test Thursday morning. And so will his nerves, as he plays alongside two Hall of Fame members. One of those legends has won more Open titles than anyone else in the field. And the other is the greatest major champion of all, who is making his last tour in this championship.
 
I think it was Ernie (Els) or someone told me that I might have to bring earplugs, because theres going to be a lot of applause, a lot of clapping ' something different than what Ive probably ever experienced, said Donald, who was grouped with Els in last year's Open and with Tiger Woods two years ago.
 
But hopefully I can use the vibes from the crowd to motivate myself and play ' use their kind of energy to spur me one. Hopefully.
 
Donald may never find himself in the same category as a Nicklaus or a Watson. But he feels like hes ready to join today's elite crowd.
 
I feel a lot more confident, and playing well breeds more confidence, he said. I feel like I belong with the top guys now.
 
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