• Open Championship

Donald finally getting comfortable with major demands

Alex Dimond at Royal Lytham & St Annes July 20, 2012

Being world No. 1 might bring Luke Donald added attention - some of it positive, some of it negative - at every major championship, but it does not help him in any way in his bid to win one of them.

As if it really needs to be said, he does not start with a shot's advantage on the rest of the field simply because of his exalted position. He still has to go out and hole the putts, make the birdies, and shoot the scores - with everyone else in the field looking to do exactly the same.

For a while on Friday - before runaway leader Brandt Snedeker finished, anyway - the Englishman shared the clubhouse lead at two-under with just one other player - Steven Alker. Alker is currently ranked 789th in the official world golf rankings but, at least until the third round gets underway, he is on exactly the same footing as the vaunted Donald.

It was a situation that served as a reminder that, at The Open, your world ranking is just a number - and not one that counts on the scorecard.

Donald, however, won't worry about that. After a nightmare appearance at Royal St George's last year - his first at a home major as the world No. 1 - the 34-year-old is relieved to have at least made the cut this time around, and encouraged to actually be in contention heading into the weekend.

"I'm certainly feeling more and more comfortable," Donald, who also missed the cut at the recent US Open, said afterwards. "It's nice to string a couple of solid rounds together in a major.

"Obviously where I am in my career I need to be contending. This was a good solid two rounds, and I'm looking forward to the weekend."

With Snedeker, after a record-equalling round of 64, putting daylight between himself and the rest of the field at 10-under thanks in great part to a few lucky bounces and some otherworldly putting, Donald nevertheless has ground to make up at the weekend.

But it was not as if Donald (who, because his regular caddie John McLaren was attending the birth of his first child, had to call up a replacement looper for the day) was playing his best on Friday - despite shooting 68, he left a number of shots out on the course.

His wedge play, usually so precise, was uncharacteristically tentative at key moments - while his putter, in stark contrast to Snedeker, never threatened to get hot. If anything, his round was saved by some stellar play on Royal Lytham & St Annes' most challenging holes - the biggest positive to come from the day.

"I played the hard holes really well; birdied six, birdied 15," he noted. "It was the easy ones I kind of struggled with - 10 and 13. I kind of caught an odd divot on that shot [10] and tried to cut in a little sand iron and bladed it over the back of the green. It was a poor shot.

"But again, those are the kind of opportunities I'm letting go. I feel if I can be a little bit sharper on the weekend with those ones, I can make a couple more birdies."

Snedeker claimed to have got one of Thursday's best tee times - he played a good 40 minutes behind Donald - but in truth the conditions were far from ideal. The wind picked up slightly for the morning players - presenting them with conditions more in keeping with what they had seen in practice - although still not quite as tough.

To make matters worse, organisers had put almost all the pins on the highest parts of the green - perhaps partly to combat the soggy conditions, and partly to bring scoring back down after an alarming opening day.

Some struggled more than others - Donald's 68 looks unimpressive against Snedeker's 64, but in comparison to playing partner Phil Mickelson's 78 it looks positively heroic.

"It was so different from yesterday," Steve Stricker, who ended up equalling Donald's 36-hole tally after a round of 71, said. "I mean yesterday was pretty fair, you could be aggressive to some of the pins. It looked like even if you short-sided some of your shots yesterday, you could get it up-and-down. Today it was not the case at all. I mean, I'm telling you, every pin was on a little knob."

Rory McIlroy (75), who slumped back to two-over for the tournament while playing a couple of groups ahead of Donald, added: "It felt like every hole we played was into the wind. It was just one of those days where I couldn't quite get on my game and struggled to get any sort of momentum."

Conditions on Saturday - 'Moving Day', as the cliché goes - are expected to be similarly probing, with the wind then set to stiffen on Sunday to present a formidable final test. That might help bring Snedeker back to the field, but Donald is hoping he does not need that sort of assistance to bring the Nashville native into his sights.

"It depends on the conditions," he concurred. "It's never easy playing with a lead. It's one of those courses you can be a little bit off and struggle, just like Phil did today. He didn't hit too many poor shots but found a lot of bunkers, just being slightly off.

"Again, I'll concentrate mostly on my game, just chipping away at trying to give myself opportunities and make some birdies."

He will have the support of much of the watching galleries, too. While the crowds for McIlroy were noticeably larger out on the course, Donald was the one attracting more cheers - those familiar low-pitched cries of "Luuuuke" - as observers began to appreciate the work he was putting in to edge onto the first page of the leaderboard.

"The crowd's been great, really vocal," Donald was pleased to report. "They were just loving it when I made that little bit of run [on the front nine]. I made some good putts there and the crowd were great. They're really getting behind me.

"Having a home crowd, you know, they are really supporting the local guys."

There is still much work to be done over the weekend but, for now, Donald is happy to be in a position to contend after so many recent major disappointments.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Alex Dimond Close
Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk