ARDMORE, Pa. – Luke Donald is many things – former world No. 1, artist, short-game Picasso – but one thing the soft-spoken Englishman has never been considered is an Open player, at least not until his caddie John McLaren began his due diligence at Merion earlier this year on a cold April day.
As McLaren began to wander the storied grounds to prepare for this week’s championship he couldn’t shake the feeling that of all the U.S. Open venues Merion was uniquely suited to his man’s game.
“When it was firm and fast, not to put any pressure on him, but I told him to view it as an opportunity,” McLaren said. “It’s like he went to sleep and in the middle of the night his dream course had arrived. Any place with five drivers and potentially seven or eight wedges in your hand, that would be Luke heaven, really.”
On a day that felt more like purgatory for much of the U.S. Open field, Donald endured a nightmarish middle stretch to find himself in uncharted waters atop the leaderboard.
Not that Donald’s day was perfect by any measure, but it was enough to leave him at even par and within a jump shot of the lead as the maid that is Merion dried and became more monstrous with each gust of wind.
2004 called – they want their Open back.
Since Tom Meeks stepped down as the USGA’s top Open setup man in 2005 and was replaced by Mike Davis, the Open has turned into a kinder, gentler championship. But with the return of the national championship to Merion after a 32-year hiatus so has the philosophy of hit-and-hope rough, good bogeys and par, although anyone with a blue blazer will tell you winning totals are of no concern.
It’s a reality that would explain Donald’s upbeat take that went well beyond the normal English optimism following a 2-over 72 on Friday.
Donald bogeyed five of six holes just past the turn on Friday, had a three-putt (No. 7) and missed his second putt from inside 3 feet in just three years on the PGA Tour. He missed a 6-footer on No. 6, a 3-footer at the second and a 5-footer at the seventh, all for par.
Things got so bad for Donald one half expected R&A chief executive Peter Dawson – the walking rules official with Donald’s group and, some say, the chief architect of the ban on anchoring – to suggest he try a long putter, but only as a short-term fix.
But throughout it all Donald maintained his composure while many others were imploding, thanks in part to the fact that few were faring any better (there was just one score in the 60s from Friday’s morning wave) and the knowledge that if ever he is going to win an Open, Merion was the place for him.
“The scoring suggests you can’t gamble here. You just need to take your par and leave,” McLaren said. “It’s a strange course, really. You could take 8-, 7-, 6-(iron) out of the bag because you know you’re going to have a wedge or a 2-iron (approach shot).”
Ever the realist, Donald knew that as Merion dried and the winds whipped, his even-par total would improve in direct correlation to the scoring average.
“It’s not easy,” said Donald, who is vying to become the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. “I didn't quite believe that 16 under was going to win this like some people said. I would love to be a couple better but at the end of Round 2 I feel I will be in a good place.”
That is in direct contrast to how he’s felt at Opens in the past. In nine previous starts at the Open he’s never finished in the top 10 and he’s broken par just eight times in his career. In fact, in 2008 Donald was put on the extended DL when he injured his wrist hitting out of Open hay at Torrey Pines.
It’s the kind of track record that makes the Open a love/hate relationship for Donald, but as McLaren learned in April Merion was something of an anti-Open.
With a collection of “fly high” 2- and 3-irons and a steady diet of wedges into the East Course’s pitched putting surfaces, Donald has hit 79 percent of his fairways and 22 of 36 greens in regulation.
“I felt like it's a course where it wasn't too demanding in terms of having to hit a lot of drivers,” said Donald, who made his own scouting trip to Merion last Wednesday and Thursday. “I think that put a lot of irons into my hands off tees and I just felt like it was a little bit more suited to my style of play.”
Strong words for a player who has been typecast his entire career as a very good player, just not a consensus pick to win a U.S. Open. But then that was before he awoke from his Open nightmare to his dream venue.