Donald thrilled by Nicklaus pairing - Golf - Sport - The Independent

Donald thrilled by Nicklaus pairing

But as Luke Donald nervously steps out at 7.47am on Thursday morning, in his pursuit of becoming the first Englishman to win in a nearly decade and a half, and as the expected record crowds hoot, holler and swarm around the player still considered the greatest of all, a very small part of the 27-year-old may consider that honours do not come any more dubious.

Not that the boy from High Wycombe was doing anything other than beaming when the news was relayed to him yesterday, even though many suspected that as he shares the same sponsor with Nicklaus and as he all but confessed on Sunday that he knew who he was playing with, yesterday's draw for the first two rounds did not come as too great a shock. "I'm so thrilled," he said. "It will be an experience to remember forever. It's going to be a historic occasion and I'm delighted to be a part of it."

But as Donald will also be in the company of one Tom Watson Esq, it was perhaps worth recalling that when Donald was last asked to appear in the glare of the Open spotlight at Sandwich with Tiger Woods in 2003 - he was a startled rabbit and startled rabbits have never been much cop with a driver in their hands. Nicklaus and Watson go together like claret and jug and their unforgettable "duel in the sun" at Turnberry in 1977 still burns bright. So bright in fact that it must be wondered if Donald's young eyes can handle it. "Don't worry, I'm a different golfer from two years ago," the new Donald confirmed.

We can only hope so, because the old Donald shot a 76 and a 79 on that Kent coast, continuing a dismal Open record that now reads "five championships, five missed cuts". Nevertheless, when Nick Faldo was asked to tip a successor to him as England's last winner in 1992, he had no hesitation in nodding towards Donald.

That seemed odd as the 48-year-old has also been telling all who would listen in this run-up that he, himself, is capable of making an incredible return to the winner's enclosure he so graced in 1990. But the fact that he was prepared to go out of his way to request a practice round with Nicklaus yesterday probably shows that his legendary focus is not as single-tracked as it once might have been. "I put a call in to his PA and asked,

"Is he free?" and they said "Yep, see you at Monday, 11am" and I said 'perfect'," confessed Faldo. "So, I got my picture on the bridge with Jack."

He also got to see first hand the state of the 65-year-old's game and said: "Look out, because I had to shoot 68 to beat him."

Can Nicklaus really achieve his long-stated mission and make one last cut to wave the sad goodbye on Sunday? "Yeah, I would have thought so," Faldo said. "He's playing solid enough and he knows what he's doing out there."

So did almost everybody else as Jackmania took over on the Old Course. A crowd of around 3,000 followed his four-ball with Faldo, Fred Couples and Bart Bryant - surely the highest-ever for a Monday practice round - and laughed along when Couples ribbed the 18-time major champion as to the length - or lack of it - of his drives. "Give me one of them there super-nuclear balls then, Freddie," replied Nicklaus.

It all meant that Woods was able to slip under the radar - as he loves doing - when he started at 6.15am together with his faithful compadre Mark O'Meara and was away well before 10am. For the second day running the world No 1 kept out of the 112 bunkers that litter the world's most famous links, just as he did in his four-round waltz here in 2000. Ominous does not begin to describe it.

David Howell, who partnered Woods on the Saturday of the eventual champion's Masters in April, will not be renewing acquaintances at the top of the leader board. The 30-year-old from Swindon lost his fight to recover from an abdominal injury and withdrew, allowing a very surprised countryman in Brian Davis into his sixth Open.

When the Londoner awoke he was the third reserve and ready to make for New York to play in the PGA Tour event there this week. But then Shingo Katayama pulled out - letting in Bernhard Langer - then Jay Haas and then, at about 10am with Davis revving his car, finally Howell.

And however well or badly Davis performs on Thursday he will be a part of something special because, for the first time in the 145 years of the Open, the golf will be suspended. At midday a hooter will silence the Old Course as a mark of respect for the victims of the bombs that rocked London last week. Peter Dawson, the Royal and Ancient chief executive, announced: "We will be observing the two-minute silence."

It has happened at other tournaments before - most memorably at the 2000 US Open to honour the 1999 champion, Payne Stewart, who had died in a plane crash --but the R&A is notoriously recalcitrant to any shift in tradition. "It is a tribute the players want to make and the R&A is fully behind that," Dawson said.

Last week, the US Open champion, Michael Campbell, raised concerns about the security here not being tight enough, but Dawson said nobody had voiced fears to him. The R&A is keen to keep the atmosphere relaxed, which could be seen yesterday evening as the public were allowed to wander the historic links at will.

"On security we have responded to police advice," Dawson said. "They are aware of recent events and threat levels. But it would be a sad day if fans couldn't get close to the players."

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