ST ANDREWS, Scotland — Never mind the $800,000 on offer for the winner of the Dunhill Links Championship, Luke Donald had his mind fixed on greens not greenbacks during his first round at Kingsbarns. He teed off at the 10th with 434 consecutive holes without a single three-putt, the longest running streak in the game.
In an age when it feels like half the players on tour are converting to the belly putter in a desperate attempt to coax the ball into the hole, Donald’s short flatstick has been rattling them in for seven tournaments over eight weeks, stretching back to the Canadian Open, the week after the British Open at Royal St George’s. A remarkable statistic in a sport obsessed with them.
Donald extended his magical touch on the greens all the way through his front nine and got to the seventh (his 16th) before disaster struck. Well OK, it wasn’t THAT tragic, but his run of holes without a three-putt came to an end at 449. After lagging up from 70 feet, Donald was left with an eight-footer for par — and missed.
“I was a little upset, yeah,” Donald said with a wry smile after signing for a three-under-par 69. It’s the little victories in golf, isn’t, that we look for. I didn’t want to miss. But 69 is not a bad score to start the week.”
Pin a “Putting Stats Geek” Badge to your lapel if you knew that the new three-putt-avoidance champ is now, of all people, Sergio Garcia at 131 consecutive holes. And you thought he was supposed to be struggling with his putting.
Donald is tucked in behind a group of players leading at six under par. Among them is Louis Oosthuizen, who scorched Kingsbarns on a glorious Californian summer’s day in Fife when the temperature sneaked above 70 degrees. He clearly enjoyed getting back on a links course just seven miles along the coast from the Old Course, where he won the British Open last year. He also sent out a clear message to Greg Norman, who chose not to pick him as a wildcard for the Presidents Cup international team.
“I was not surprised,” Oosthuizen said. “I would have done the same picking two Australian players. I was more upset that I didn’t make the team.”
Maybe the Dunhill Links Championship is going to be the comeback tournament for 2010 major champions. U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell was one shot further back after a first-round five under 67 while PGA champion Martin Kaymer is on four under par on a day when the stellar players all played Kingsbarns. Phil Mickelson, the 2010 Masters champ, probably should have made the trip.
Oosthuizen, McDowell and Kaymer will follow each other to Carnoustie for round two before playing at St. Andrews on Saturday and then — if they make the cut — a final round over the hallowed Old Course. McDowell has been fighting to recreate the mojo that helped him to be the star of the show at Pebble Beach and again at Celtic Manor during the Ryder Cup.
“Me and my caddie had to have a bit of a heart-to-heart about what we were doing and what needed to change,” McDowell said. “It was a bit of soul-searching after the PGA.”
He believes he has turned the corner.
“It feels good to go out there are score well,” McDowell said. “I’m excited about the rest of the season and maybe achieve something out of what has been a frustrating year.”
Colin Montgomerie hasn’t won a major, but he’s certainly majored in frustration on a golf course. So it was grinning Monty rather then grumpy Monty that bounced off his final green at Kingsbarns like Tigger. That’s Tigger from “Winnie the Pooh,” not Tiger from Jupiter, Florida. He is four under par along with Kaymer, Padraig Harrington and World No.2 Lee Westwood. How appropriate for Montgomerie to see his name writ large on leaderboards in his homeland. The omens are good as well. He has been reunited with his amateur partner from 2005 when he won the tournament, two-time Academy Award winner Michael Douglas.
“He’s a cancer survivor. That’s what he calls himself,” Montgomerie said. “He did extremely well. It’s great to see him back here and battling through.
A year ago this week, Montgomerie was in his pomp and Lord of the (Celtic) Manor at the Ryder Cup. He’s back in the limelight once again at age 48.
Rory McIlroy had a low-key day by his standards with a two-under-par 70 playing with his father Gerry.
“Glad I had a good partner in my dad today!” McIlroy tweeted after his round. “He carried me for 11 holes before I eventually removed my head from my ass! Solid day in the end.”
It was also a family affair for McIlroy’s playing partner Dustin Johnson, who shot a one-under-par 71 with his brother Austin lugging his bag around the humps and hollows of Kingsbarns.
Johnson shared his thoughts for the first time about how he feels about his caddie Joe LaCava ditching him last Sunday for Tiger Woods.
“[LaCava] told me in the locker room after the Tour Championship,” Johnson said. “Things happen. He’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. I’ll be all right. I’ll find me a caddie.”
Johnson said that Tiger called him directly.
“I talked to Tiger. Everything’s good. No hard feelings,” he said. “Joe got offered the chance to go caddie for Tiger and he took it. You can’t blame the guy. If he wanted to go caddie for him, that’s fine with me. He can do whatever he wants.”
Johnson said he wasn’t angry or disappointed with how the whole affair had panned out.
“No, not at all. I like Joe,” he said. “It’s a business. And you’ve got to make decisions.”