Can new No 1 handle life at the summit?

Luke Donald is naturally coy so how he copes with his new status over the next few vital weeks will be intriguing
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The Independent Online

Luke Donald flew out to Ohio yesterday looking a little dazed. No doubt the celebrations following the unprecedented scenes at Wentworth on Sunday evening had something to do with that, although there was another reason for the bemusement on his countenance. "To be the world No 1 seems surreal," he said.

To think he felt "invincible" after last Thursday's opening 64 in the BMW PGA Championship and here he was five days later struggling to keep check on the reality. Not quite Superman is it? But the shaking of his head would be understandable for anyone who witnessed what must rank among English golf's most notable afternoons as Donald and Lee Westwood staged the plus-foured equivalent of High Noon.

Having the top two players in the world is one thing but seeing them slugging it out in a winner-takes-all play-off in the European Tour's flagship event is quite another. Surrey had never seen anything like it; Britain had never seen anything like it; in fact, the world had never seen anything like it. For Donald, in terms of scaling the summit it must have seemed like he was in a foot race up the last slope with Edmund Hillary.

But then, he arrived there and this quiet 33-year-old from High Wycombe looked around. The view never is as you would imagine. After all, everyone is looking back up at you, all waiting for your next move. Of course, the millions Donald earned in sponsors' bonuses simply in becoming the game's 15th world No 1 – and the third from England – will only add to the sense of expectation. As Martin Kaymer – the German who has also had a spell as top dog since the abdication of Tiger Woods last October – put it: "They expect you to win every time you tee it up."

They also expect you to justify yourself and your standing, as Westwood would be the first to confirm. When Donald today arrives at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus's tournament, it will be intriguing to see how he is received by the American media. As he is a full-time member of the PGA Tour – unlike Westwood – expect few of the reservations which greeted his countryman's accession. Inevitably, however, there will be those who overlook the columns which show him finishing in the top 10 in 14 of his past 15 events and instead take reference in the blank column marked "majors" and even in the "wins" column which shows just two strokeplay titles from the past five years – and from there question his credentials.

No matter. As Donald's principal goal at the start of the season was not to win more, or to scale the rankings, but purely "to contend in all four majors", the next few months will be the most important of his campaign, regardless of what came before. And the next three will assume critical status.

After the Memorial ends a five-week stretch, Donald will then use the next week "to recharge" for the following week's US Open. He is already brimming at the prospect of golf's most searching examination, at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland. "It was a tough test at Wentworth and Congressional will be tough as well, so I hope I can draw some positives from that," said Donald, who finished fourth at last month's Masters. "I played the course probably seven or eight years ago. It was a US Open qualifier and I got through, so the memories are decent. But obviously I'll need to be refreshed. I hope to play a practice round there the week before."

His long-time coach, Pat Goss, will accompany him on that Maryland reconnaissance and Donald will also keep in contact with his performance coach, Dave Alred. Since employing the guru of Jonny Wilkinson, England's Rugby World Cup winner, 18 months ago, Donald has leapt from outside the world's top 30. Alred's influence has been obvious, as he has implanted in his pupil a harder, more confident mindset. Yet Donald is not prepared to credit Alred with the entirety of the startling upturn for a player once nicknamed "Plod", whom many wrote off as being too short a hitter ever to head the elite.

As well as Goss – who has coached him since he enrolled in a Chicago university – and his caddie, John McLaren – who took his bag after he sacked his brother, Christian – Donald is also keen to recognise the impact of another member of "my team". Her name is Elle, she is 15 months old, and gave him his first congratulatory hug at Wentworth, just as she did in Tucson three months ago when Daddy won the World Match Play.

"Since Elle's birth, my golf has only gone from strength to strength," said Donald, who revealed that his wife, Diane, is expecting their second in November. "Being a father has given me a lot more responsibility. As a person, I've grown up. And she genuinely is an inspiration to me, just from watching her grow. Every day she learns new skills, adapts, becomes better and better at what she is. That's all I'm trying to do at golf, too; every day, trying to figure a way to improve."

It is a commendable ambition – for Donald, not Elle – which might well sound naff coming from most other burgeoning sporting superstars. But Donald has always been unassuming, has never shouted his talent from the clubhouse rooftops. Yet the game now knows how wrong it is to take this natural coyness as a sign of vulnerability. Perhaps the killer instinct was lacking once, but he has found his niche as the game's silent assassin. No, he is not the longest, but from close in he is deadly. It will be so intriguing to see how easily the heavy tag of No 1 sits on those comparatively slight shoulders.

"Whether it will change me, I don't think so," he said. "The goal is always to continue to focus on the processes of getting better. And just because I have reached the pinnacle of the rankings doesn't mean my work is done. I have a lot more to accomplish, many more victories. And hopefully I can at least be somewhat of a worthy No 1 for a few weeks."

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