BETHESDA, Md. — It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?
Luke Donald has spent the last 12 months calmly executing his campaign toward world domination. He has racked up 15 top 10s in his last 16 events and beaten his two main rivals into submission. First he destroyed Martin Kaymer in the final of the WGC-Accenture World Match Play at Tucson. Then he stared down Lee Westwood at Wentworth in what became a playoff for the BMW PGA Championship and the title of World No. 1. Mission accomplished.
And so Donald will tee off in the 111th U.S. Open Championship in the form of his life. His playing partners for the first two rounds? Kaymer and Westwood. Ryder Cup camaraderie may have to be put on hold.
“It’s a fun group,” Donald said. “I’m sure there’ll be some chat between us. But maybe we’ll play the ‘no chat’ card.
“The bigger the arena and atmosphere with people watching you gets you concentrating more and gets you going more,” Donald continued. “We’re, 1, 2 and 3 in the world but I wouldn’t say we’re the biggest group. Americans like to follow Phil.”
He may well be right, but their European three-ball will be a fascinating battle to watch. Revenge, bragging rights, egos, pecking order — it’s all there as a possible distraction to the main prize. Donald’s brother Christian will be caddying for Kaymer for the first time, too. Luke, remember, sacked his brother. Blood is clearly not thicker than water when it comes to the pursuit of trophies. Watching their meeting on the first tee will be a psychology class.
Donald is a driven man. He even writes daily goals in a little black book to force himself to be accountable for his successes and failures. That diary has transformed the 33-year-old Englishman from an underachiever into the best golfer in the world. He has become golf’s Little Big Man.
His best finish at a U.S. Open is T12 in 2006, but this time he is full of the confidence that comes with success. He is the first British golfer to enter a major championship as world No. 1 since Nick Faldo 20 years ago in his early 1990s heyday. Even 10 years ago there was a period when Westwood was the only Englishman in the World’s Top 100. At Congressional, Donald leads a pack of 15 players from Great Britain and Ireland, nine from England, with three in the Top 10.
Donald admitted that he hasn’t contended in U.S. Opens because he hasn’t hit enough fairways. But all that has changed this year. “I was ranked first in driving accuracy at the Muirfield Village,” he said. “That’s the first time that’s happened in over five years.”
Golf’s monster courses, he said, no longer intimidate him or inhibit his chances of victory. Especially when his newfound accuracy off the tee is married to the game’s deadliest short game. “I’d love to have his iron play,” said Graeme McDowell. High praise indeed from the defending U.S. Open champion.
“I’ve always loved his golf swing. Such balance. It’s fluid, rhythmical, doesn’t go hard at it at all,” McDowell said. “He is as good with a 4- or 5-iron as most guys are with 8- or 9-irons. His ball control is just incredible. He has his game under control and polished. I played with Luke in a practice round at the Ryder Cup last year. I knew he was a good player, I didn’t realize he was that good.”
The only thing missing from Donald’s resume is that elusive first major, and he is desperate to put that right.
“Certainly being No.1 is a great achievement,” Donald said, “but if you ask me if I would swap that for Phil’s (Mickelson) record, sure, I would love to take his four majors and the number of victories he’s had. The goal is always to have a chance on Sunday and to contend. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and there’s no reason why I can’t do it this week.”
Westwood, too, is still chasing that major-championship breakthrough. And he’s getting closer to the winning line. He has top-3 finishes in all four majors and was runner-up last year at the Masters and British Open. Like Donald, he has been quietly confident all week at Congressional. He has had that look in his eyes and in his body language that he had in Dubai in 2009 before he lapped the field to win Europe’s money list. He has learned to respond to near-misses in the majors with a philosophical shrug.
“If you’re a good player, you’re going to have disappointments because you are going to be in contention a lot,” Westwood said. “There’s no secret ingredient.”
Westwood finished 19th at Congressional in 1997 on his U.S. Open debut and loved it. He said it’s one of his favorite three courses, along with Augusta National and Pebble Beach.
“My game is good enough,” he said. “If I just do a few things differently at the right times then it’ll be the difference between a second and a win.”