Donald prepared for 'experience of a lifetime' when old master and young contender meet
Donald, 27, has some impressive form. He tied third in the US Masters when Tiger Woods reasserted himself with his fourth Green Jacket last April, was going well for the first two rounds of the US Open, and finished strongly in the Players Championship - but won't the sheer weight of the company he is keeping drive him deep inside himself this morning? That, and the fact that in five Opens he has yet to beat the cut.
Donald's fine features tighten when the pressures are lumped together and converted into something you might find on Wimbledon's Henman Hill. However, if the object of all that tennis expectation became a martyr to the yearnings of middle England, Donald, who was born in Hemel Hempstead but has a Scottish grandfather, says he carries no other burden but his own when he walks out to the Old Course in the dawn. He has been trained for such occasions in a top American college, North Western, and the American tour. Nicklaus is not a stranger to him.
The name Tim Henman slides by him without leaving a flicker of recognition. "I've never really thought along those lines," he snaps. "You go on the course and you play - you don't think of outside pressure. Pressure is executing your shots, not thinking about other people's expectations."
Some here raised their eyebrows and said it was astounding coincidence that Donald was grouped with Nicklaus, the emotional centrepiece of the 134th Open as he prepares to say his final farewell to the game he has dominated more profoundly than any other player with the possible exception of the current favourite, Woods.
Both Nicklaus and Donald are sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, for whom the massive attention directed towards the old master and the young contender is surely an advertising dream. But again, Donald dismisses the idea that circumstances have combined to consume his sixth attempt to fight his way into the last two days of The Open.
"The limelight has been on me quite a lot in the last two years, especially this last one," he says. "Last year I started doing press conferences. I had the Ryder Cup spotlight and now there is definitely more limelight, but, look, that goes with the territory of playing well and moving up the rankings. Why should it distract me? I'm ranked 15th in the world. The job I have to do wasn't changed when the draw came out...I just have to get on with it, and in my position why wouldn't I not think I'm lucky to be walking out with two of the greatest champions golf will ever know?
"However you look at it, it's quite an honour to be paired with Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it. It's going to be an experience of a lifetime and I can't wait to get out there."
Donald says that the glories of the past will not interfere, at least as far as he is concerned, with the imperatives of the day. He was eight years old when Nicklaus won his last major so tumultuously at Augusta, still toddling when the Golden Bear walked up the 18th fairway here to claim his third and last Open, and was a few months short of his birth when his companions today and tomorrow fought their unforgettable duel at Turnberry. Watson won that with golf which Nicklaus later admitted had invaded all his resources of talent and nerve, and for those who remember the glory of the battle there were will be no cynical questioning about possible stage managing of a Nicklaus farewell that for so many aficionados of the game will be almost unbearably poignant.
In Nicklaus and Watson the British golf public sees a pairing of the greatest of American raiders. In Donald, just maybe, they may see the emergence of a golfer capable of picking up the baton put down by the likes of Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam.
Donald insists that he is well prepared, physically and psychologically, to seize the next few days. "Obviously, I've been very fortunate to get to know Jack on a little bit more of a personal level through our relationship with the RBS, and if I ever wanted him to be a little bit of a mentor for me he was always there. Jack is never going to give you advice without you asking. He's always told me that guys at my level can pretty much figure it out for themselves."
What Donald has worked out most thoroughly in the last few days is that his five straight failures to beat the cut are disasters that belong in the past, as do the glories of Nicklaus and Watson. "Yeah, my record at the Open isn't very good at all. But it's something I'm not thinking about this week. In fact, I think it's a little bit more of an irrelevant point now. I think I'm a different player now.
"I'm not coming here just to make the cut. I'm coming here to win the championship. My mentality is a lot different now than it was in past years. I'm not thinking about cuts, making them, missing them, I'm thinking about winning."
He knows that in such a pursuit there will be no distractions created by Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson. They will be playing golf not for memories of the past but the challenge of the present.
"Obviously, there will be a few waves here and there, but Jack isn't going to slow up play or distract me in any way," said Donald. Whatever happens in the future, he knows he will always have today. He will always have the walk to the first tee with Nicklaus and Watson. He will always have a place in the history of the game.
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