Donald on the crest of England's irrepressible new wave

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The Independent Online

As a professional golfer, Luke Donald has not exactly saved his best for Britain. The former England international as an amateur has lived in Chicago since attending university in the city, and his only previous appearances over here as a pro have been in the last three Open Championships, in none of which did he survive the halfway cut.

But the 26-year-old from Beaconsfield could make up for that today by winning the Dunhill Links Championship. Going into today's final round on the Old Course here, Donald, at 17 under par, leads by two strokes from two of his Ryder Cup team-mates, David Howell and Ian Poulter, as well as a prospective representative in 2006, Graeme McDowell.

For this quartet, who are all under 30, as well as Scotland's Stephen Gallacher, who is three shots behind Donald, this is a massive day. Not only is the prize money beyond huge, with £445,000 for the winner, but in comparison with many other weeks on the European Tour there are lots of world-ranking points on offer thanks to the presence here of the game's best two players, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els.

Having only joined the European Tour earlier this summer, after playing for three years on the US Tour in a successful attempt to make the Ryder Cup team, this is actually Donald's first regular European Tour event in Britain. Yet what beckons today is a third victory in his last seven outings.

In all, this is only his 16th European Tour event, and when majors and World Championship events, such as the one in Ireland last week won by Els, are discounted, this is only Donald's seventh regular European Tour appearance. It was a good job Bernhard Langer had a word and suggested he tried to get to Oakland Hills before backing that up by selecting the young Englishman as a wild card.

In the States, Donald worked hard at hitting the ball higher and longer, and as a consequence struggled when he came back for The Open. To some extent the spotlight was on him then, as it was a rare chance to see the former Walker Cup star here.

But this week Donald has handled not just one links but all three of the venues for this championship with aplomb. He opened with a 66 at Kingsbarns, followed it with a 65 on the Old Course and added a 68 yesterday at Carnoustie.

"Links golf is fun," Donald said. "You have to think your way round. It's not about just hitting the right club and aiming straight for the pin. You have to thread your way through the bunkers and over the humps and hollows. Carnoustie was definitely the toughest of the three courses and I'm pleased with that 68."

Donald added: "It's been an unbelievable couple of months. To have won twice, have a run of good tournaments, and, of course, the Ryder Cup. When you are playing well, you don't see the trouble. I've been hitting the ball down the middle and this week the putts have been going in as well."

On the coldest of the three days so far - and with rounds taking six hours there is not much opportunity to warm up - most of the big names were at Carnoustie. Howell, the overnight leader, said he made a couple of mental errors in his 71.

Poulter, with a 65, produced the best score of the day at the venue of the 1999 Open, albeit a tamer version. He bogeyed the first and had his birdie attempt at the second horseshoe out. "I thought it could be one of those days, but I focused well after that and just seemed to plod along to a 65," he said.

A brilliant approach at the last for a closing birdie gave him an inward 31. "I didn't touch a club for nine days prior to this week," Poulter revealed. "I was a little tired after the Ryder Cup and needed the rest. It depends on the weather what I need to do tomorrow, but it's great to see Luke and David up there. It's great for England, isn't it?"

McDowell had a 67 at Kingsbarns in which he birdied three of the last five holes. He started the week by equalling the course record on the Old with a 62, so no one could have better vibes for this morning. There have been three 62s on the Old Course in the last year, but McDowell reckoned that without rough it was far easier to avoid the pot bunkers. That should not be the case when The Open returns next summer.

Lee Westwood, who has become a fan of the Old Course following his victory last year, may be too far behind after bogeying the last at Carnoustie to be 11 under, one behind the group that contains Els. The South African has had a 68 on each course. Singh and Colin Montgomerie trailed at nine under. Monty's partner was the tactile model Jodie Kidd. "I've had a huggy week," said the Scot. It could be different today. "I hope so if I'm playing with Vijay."