A stranger to the game of golf would have been hard-pushed to recognise Luke Donald as the world no 1 yesterday, partly because there was very little accompanying razzmatazz – spectators were manifestly more interested in the group just ahead, which included a young Ulsterman called McIlroy – but partly also because Donald's short game, usually as reliable as a metronome, clicked only sporadically.
Donald carded a 71, a disappointment after a promising opening half of 34, and was narrowly outscored by Sergio Garcia alongside him, though Garcia too was rather downbeat afterwards, having bogeyed two of the last three holes to finish on 70, level par. Still, both men will consider themselves satisfactorily placed to make an assault on the leaderboard today.
Donald was steady enough with the longer clubs in the bag yesterday, but if he is to become the fifth Englishman after JH Taylor, Harry Vardon (twice), Henry Cotton and Reg Whitcombe to win an Open over these venerable Kentish links, he will need to rediscover his touch on and around the greens.
The 33-year-old usually wields a putter as surely as Simon Rattle does a baton, or, more topically, Harry Potter a wand. And indeed, when he almost casually rolled in a 15-footer for a birdie at the par-three third, it looked as though the championship's form horse, fresh from his convincing win in the Scottish Open, had already found his stride. But at the short sixth came the first hint that the metronome was a little out of sync, a dreadful chip by his towering standards leaving a missable putt that was duly missed, and although he made immediate amends by rattling in a 30-footer on the seventh, several more shortish putts slipped by. A brilliant wedge shot out of the left-hand rough on the 17th yielded the only single-putt of Donald's back nine, which is not the way majors are won. "It really could have been a very good round if I'd have had the putter going," he said afterwards. "I didn't quite see the lines as well as I would have hoped, but hopefully some of those missed opportunities will be gained in the next few days."
As for Garcia, the putter in his hands is sometimes less evocative of Harry Potter with a wand than Harry Redknapp, although in truth it was his driver that let him down yesterday, with particularly poor tee shots at the 17th and 18th giving him food for thought as he headed for the range past the poignant silhouettes of Seve Ballesteros that adorn the grandstands here. "It's hard enough already, so you want to keep your attention on the right things," said Garcia afterwards, when asked if his thoughts had strayed to his late, great compatriot during his round. But "yeah, he did come to mind here and there".
It is more than a decade now since Ballesteros anointed Garcia as his heir-apparent in European golf, and nobody is more keenly aware than the 31-year-old Spaniard himself that he has never quite lived up to his early billing. But he finished joint-seventh at last month's US Open and is rising up the rankings after a slump that made him step away from the game altogether for two months last year. Yesterday there were more than a few signs that he can still be a contender in a championship in which he has recorded six top-10 finishes since 2001, not least a brilliant approach to the par four 12th that left him with a tap-in birdie and the broad smile that not so long ago seemed to have faded for ever.