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Looking Out For No. 1 … Quietly

JOHNS CREEK, GEORGIA | Decisions, decisions. Fat free skim milk or Vitamin D milk? Decaffeinated or regular coffee? Raspberry or strawberry yogurt? Then on two steamy days in Georgia, who to watch: Luke Donald or Tiger Woods?

Thousands went for Woods, the world No. 30; hundreds for Donald, the world No. 1. Thousands were wrong, the hundreds were right. Who wants to see a man play 13 holes in 10-over par, and run up five double-bogeys before his inevitable departure from the tournament on Friday night, when you can watch a man play with the skill of a surgeon and the stealth of a cat burglar? Included in Donald’s display was a bunker shot on the swooping 12th of such deftness and skill that it was Woodsian in thought and Ballesteros-like in execution.

Look at Donald and you see a man of medium height, slim, with an open face topped by curly hair, a man who has a jaunty walk, a quiet voice and a swing that is built on a rhythm that repeats as regularly and smoothly as a Swiss watch. Watch him from a distance and you can’t tell which is his practice swing and which the real thing. Have you ever seen Donald not finish on balance, hands raised high? He is the same with a wedge in his hands as he is with a driver.

Donald is pin-neat with his irons, a man who aims at a flagstick and rarely finishes far from his target. But when his driver is in his hands there is a surprising wildness. This was obvious again last week when, often, a drive that went right was followed by one that went left and contributed to the two double-bogeys he had in his first 36 holes.

“My legs get over active and that causes my right hip to get too high at impact and the result of that is I hit it high right or left left,” he explained.

Donald looks, walks, talks and plays with quiet assurance. He doesn’t strut as Woods sometimes did. He doesn’t march as Jack Nicklaus did. Everything Donald does is done with the minimum sound and maximum efficiency. He’d be a wonderful cat burglar. Martin Kaymer was clearly unsettled when he became world No. 1 but Donald wears that title as comfortably as if it were a Savile Row jacket.

Talking of jackets, Donald has a considerable wardrobe thanks to a sponsorship deal with Ralph Lauren. When he checked into a hotel during a tournament he allowed Diane, his wife, only one hanger until she complained. She is now allowed two hangers.

It is easy to see why Donald, 33, has become the success he has. “If you have the game of Luke Donald there is no point in trying to become Tiger Woods,” Thomas Levet, Donald’s teammate in the 2004 Ryder Cup team, said. “Luke has realised where his strengths are and he sticks to them. That is very, very intelligent.”

Intelligence is one reason why Donald is such a good golfer. A rare character combination is another. “Luke has the ability to use both sides of the brain,” Jim Fannin, the performance coach, said. “He is highly creative but there is a discipline about him that most creative people do not have.”

Donald outscored Woods last week but could not escape him on the golf course. On the difficult, downhill 15th, a roar from the Woods group caught Donald on the backswing on Thursday. On Friday, it was sudden applause for a rare Woods birdie on the 15th that wafted up the hill to the 16th green where Donald had to step back from a putt.

Donald had the last word, though. Woods’ erratic play caused him to miss the halfway cut for only the fourth time in a major championship. Donald, meanwhile, wiped his brow and reminded his watchers of how it was that he has won three tournaments and had eight top-10 finishes in the 16 tournaments he has competed in this year.

Ask other players about Donald and the thing they all mention, what they covet most, is his short game. “From 100 yards in he’s the best in the world,” Paul Casey said. It was ironic then that this is what let him down at the end of his third round when he had a chance to join the leaders on 5-under par and dropped three strokes in his last three holes. Thus did a 65, 5 under, became a 68.

Donald didn’t look like the best player in the world when he played his third shot to the 18th, a 9 iron that needed to travel 143 yards to clear the water and actually carried 140.

“I am angry with myself,” Donald said, though from the tone of his voice you would not have known that. “That finish leaves a sour taste in the mouth. I had something really good going and I threw it away. I think I shall go and punish myself in the gym.”


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