POOR Luke Donald. He’s golf’s Invisible Man. The world No 1 should expect to be swamped by huge crowds at the final major of the season - and he was. But the sad thing for the Englishman is they were following the world No 30 in the group behind and the world No 6 in the group in front. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were the fan favourites of the morning threeballs here. Donald was the forgotten man in the middle.
He knows he does not have the star quality of the American heavyweights. He knows he is not flash enough to be a celebrity worth stalking for five hours. “Some personalities attract more attention,” Donald said. “I’m not one of those. And that’s just the way it’s going to be. I get great support in the UK and in Europe but I understand that when I’m in the US, being a player from England, I’m not going to get as much.” Donald just accepts his co-starring role and turns out Oscar-winning performances week-in week-out. Another tournament, another leaderboard with Donald’s name on it.
He stood on the 15th tee (his sixth hole) looking cool in the stifling heat at two under par having drilled in six foot birdie putts at the 11th and 12th. The 260-yard par three with water in front of the green is the start of a finishing stretch the players here agree is the toughest they have faced all year. Donald, among many of his peers, is not a fan of its monstrous length. “
The world’s greatest par-threes are short: “The seventh at Pebble Beach, the 12th at Augusta,” he said. He likes the 15th at Atlanta even less now. A huge roar punctuated the silence just as Donald swung at his ball on the tee. Woods had stiffed his approach at the 14th. It startled Donald and he snap-hooked it. “You gotta be kidding me,” he muttered shaking his head. He found his ball in a ditch in front of the portable toilets left of the green. Donald needed a lucky break rather than a comfort break. He got neither. There was no relief. He chipped out under low hanging branches and up a step bank into a bunker. Double bogey.
He trudged off to the 16th tee drenched in sweat and clutching a white towel. But Donald was not about to throw it in. He holed a curly-wurly 12-footer for birdie on a green designed like a mogul field. It prompted the first (half-hearted) chorus of “Luuuuuuke”. They do know who he is, after all.
More water at the par-three 17th. But no trouble for Donald who arced a mid-iron into the electric blue sky and breathed a sigh of relief as his ball plopped down on the green. Two putts: par. The 18th is a spectacular finishing hole that will provide glory or heartbreak on Sunday afternoon. There is water to the left as the fairway curls around the corner of the dogleg and yet more water guarding the green. Donald’s playing partners both left the hole with that sinking feeling. Nick Watney dunked two balls and Alvaro Quiros splashed out of a bunker then splashed into the water, too.
No such tomfoolery from the metronomic Donald. He negotiated its 507 yards (no, it’s not a par-five) with a drive that went straight down the middle and a mid-iron that zeroed in on the flag. Donald picked up another birdie at the first (his 10th) but bogeys at the sixth and eighth left him as he had started the day: even par, under the radar, invisible. But Donald will be reasonably happy with his day’s work. He sported a cranberry polo shirt but didn’t get juiced in the tropical heat. He wore cricket slacks but didn’t rack up a cricket score unlike Ryo Ishikawa who declared at lunch at a 15-over-par 85.
Donald will bat again in round two with plenty to do to catch the leaders. His record in this championship is poor with only one top 10 in seven attempts and a best finish of tie for third in 2006. But the 2011 Donald is a richer, more full-bodied vintage. He may be invisible here but his rivals know only too well to ignore him at their peril.
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