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Donald adjusting strategy in quest for major No. 1

Luke Donald
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ARDMORE, Pa. – Back home in Chicago, Luke Donald couldn’t have been pleased seeing reports of heavy rain softening the sub-7,000-yard East Course at Merion.

That negates one of the Englishman’s main advantages.

“It makes everything around the greens a little bit more accessible,” he said Tuesday. “It makes the short game a little bit easier.”

Donald has always approached the game from the hole backward. That philosophy works well at regular PGA Tour stops, where the hottest putter that week usually contends, but rarely at the U.S. Open, where there is a premium on accuracy and precision with the long game.

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It’s one of the reasons why Donald has traditionally struggled at the year’s second major, where he has recorded just a pair of top-20s in nine previous starts, where he has shot in the 60s in only three of 29 rounds, and where he is a combined 54 over when he’s finished all four rounds.

As a result, Donald has made a conscious effort this year to spend more time on the range, trying to increase his accuracy off the tee – the single-most important attribute at Merion – hit more greens and gain more control over his ball flight. (He’s improved from 124th to 106th in total driving, including 34th in driving accuracy.)

Never to be confused for one of the game’s bombers (averaging 277.6 yards off the tee), Donald said he likely would hit only five drivers per round this week – on Nos. 4, 5, 6, 16 and 18. Find the fairway and then attack from there.

But whatever advantage Donald would have enjoyed around the greens likely disappeared over the past few days. He’s sixth in putting and 15th in scrambling, but if the greens aren’t firm and fast – and they won’t be, not after five inches of rain deluged Merion over the weekend and with more expected Thursday – chips and pitch shots are markedly easier.

“I would have liked to see it firmer,” Donald said. “Wetter, damper conditions bring more of the field into play.”

Unlike in 2011 and ’12, Donald won’t enter this week’s championship as the No. 1 player in the world. He has since slipped to No. 6, after winning only once (Dunlop Phoenix) in the past 12 months.

“There’s always more attention,” he said. “But within myself, the pressures are just the same. I want to win a major championship just as badly this year as when I was No. 1. It’s about managing those expectations, managing those feelings and knowing what you have is good enough.”