The Englishman officially ranked as the best golfer on the planet could be forgiven for feeling a little peeved as the excitement builds in advance of this week's Open Championship, for it is young Rory McIlroy who stands squarely in the spotlight's beam, with Luke Donald, even as the new Scottish Open champion, merely among a clutch of contenders occupying that half-light between the glare of expectation and the shadows of possibility.
Yet Donald is perfectly content not to be the focus of a media hullabaloo. Softly spoken and modest, the world No 1 revels in his stature not for the historic prestige it confers, but for what it says about his remarkable consistency. He is all too aware, however, that when a sparkling run of form goes flat in the week of a major championship, as his did at the Congressional Country Club in last month's US Open, it offers ammunition to those who say that the ranking system does not pay proper heed to what really matters in golf, to the game's real measure of greatness. Like Caroline Wozniacki, the young Danish woman whom the computers call the finest female tennis player in the world, and like Lee Westwood, his predecessor at the top, Donald needs a major to make his mark indelible.
Will he get one at Royal St George's on the Kent coast? For all its venerability, having first hosted the great championship in 1894, the southernmost course on the Open rotation does not command universal or even particularly widespread affection among the leading players. And Donald has 155 reasons not to like it, for in 2003, the last time the Open was held there, he returned an ugly 76 followed by a grotesque 79, to miss the cut by a country mile. But that was then, when he was merely a player of abundant promise, who had broken the scoring records established by Tiger Woods in the American collegiate system, but had yet to win on the European Tour, and was world No 1 only in his more fanciful dreams.
Badly missed cuts have a way of inducing amnesia in golfers, and sure enough, until he dropped by to reacquaint himself 10 days ago, Donald could not recall much about the course. "I knew I didn't play that great in '03, and remember there being a lot of talk about fairways crowning, balls running off them into the rough even after good drives," he tells me. "But that's a little bit the beauty of links, and as a player, even if you don't really like a course you have to find something in it that you do like."
Donald talks quietly and earnestly, like the clean-cut Home Counties boy he is, although in his vowels there is also more than a trace of the American mid-west. He lives in Chicago, is married to an American (though of Greek parentage, so Diane Donald unashamedly "roots for the Euros" during the Ryder Cup), and it could be that his golf, based on accuracy, metronomic consistency and an apple-pie short game, is best-suited to manicured, American-style courses. There has to be a reason why such a fine player has only managed a single top-10 finish in the Open, his fifth place at Turnberry in 2009.
"Well," he muses, "it's true that I had a long run of missed cuts in the Open. But the last couple of years have been better. Fifth at Turnberry, and 11th or 12th or something last year. And I've always said that if you're going into a tournament playing well, it doesn't matter where it is. You're going to thrive off those positive feelings."
Since he reached the summit of the game, nobody talks much any more about Donald's perceived lack of length off the tee. But it's not so long since some supposed experts all but ruled him out of contention ahead of tournaments such as the Masters, on account of his lack of distance. Did this amuse him, or irritate him? "Yeah, it's quite funny. I'm probably an average-hitter, at least, and if you talk to my peers they will tell you that I hit the ball plenty far enough. I'm not a Rory or a Dustin Johnson, but in the last year or so I've actually gained a bit of distance, through working out, and better positions in my swing. I'm not too worried, especially at an Open, because if it's not wet there's going to be a lot of run, so length is not so much of an issue."
Donald's scoring in the benighted Scottish Open these last few days suggests that if the rain does lash in off the English Channel, he will cope better than most. "I certainly don't mind wet weather," he says. "[Padraig] Harrington once said that in bad conditions, a third of the players don't have the talent to do well and a third give up mentally because it's so hard, which reduces the field, and if you can sneak in a few birdies you're making up a lot of ground. I like that challenge."
In 2005 at St Andrews, Donald played the first two rounds in the company of one of the best wet-weather golfers ever to stand hunched against the elements in a set of waterproofs, Tom Watson. Yet even Watson was a junior partner over those 36 holes, for the other man in their group was Jack Nicklaus, making his Open championship swansong. It is a source both of pride and regret to Donald that the experience of playing with Nicklaus in the great man's valedictory round still represents his most memorable experience at the Open; regret that he doesn't yet have an actual accomplishment of his own to look back on, but pride that he was there.
"It was tremendous, and I felt very honoured. There were ovations onto every tee, every green, it was very special. And those last couple of holes on the Friday, with every window in the Old Course Hotel full of people, it was amazing to be part of that. It took us about 45 minutes to play the 18th, because we were on the Swilken Bridge for half an hour having photographs taken. I have some of those photos up in my house."
Nicklaus and Watson, of course, had won eight Opens between them. Was there anything that a young buck of 27 could learn from them in 2005? "Yeah, in a way. Jack played plenty well enough that year to make the cut, he just didn't putt that great. And Watson did make the cut. It taught me you don't need anything extra, you just have to do the things you know you can do, and if you hole the putts you will be up there ..."
It seems unlikely that in 2005 Watson and Nicklaus saw in Donald a man who would one day occupy golf's mountain-top, if only because Woods, who that week won the Open by five shots, stood there so entrenched and seemingly impregnable. Whether Donald will ever be as commanding as world No 1 probably even he doubts. But he's enjoying it while it lasts. "I'd say my popularity's gone up, the awareness, a bit more expectation. It's changed things a little bit, but all for the good. My own expectations of myself are no greater. My objective has always been to get better, no matter where my ranking is."
He understands the jibe – most often and loudly heard from the Americans, who currently have only four players in the top 10, and none in the top four – that it makes no sense to have a one-two, in Donald and Westwood, without a major between them. "But I don't make up the ranking system," he says. "Yeah, the majors are very important, and I would love to win one or many. I'll continue to compete in them hard and win if I can. There's not much more I can say. I'd love to be part of the club of people who've won majors. But this is a world ranking, not a majors ranking."
Indeed. And it seems impolite to talk to the world No 1 about the world No 4, but McIlroy is, after all, golf's hottest topic. So I ask Donald whether he looks down the rankings at the youngster and sees a breadth of talent to which he can only aspire? If he considers it an impertinent question, he doesn't let on. "There's certainly stuff in Rory's game that I don't have. His driving distance, for one, and his consistency tee to green at Congressional was unbelievable. It's never easy to lead from the front, and to put all negatives from the Masters behind him, that was amazing. But if I was playing at my best ... it would be a good contest."
Among the entourage aiming to keep him at his best is Dave Alred, the England rugby union team's kicking coach, best known for perfecting the perfectionist that is Jonny Wilkinson. It was Donald's sister's husband, a rugby enthusiast, who suggested 18 months ago that Alred might be the man to help him reach his potential. Donald liked the idea, made the call, and considers it no coincidence that soon after hooking up with Alred he won the Madrid Masters, to which he has since added the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, the BMW PGA Championship, the Scottish Open, a string of top-10 finishes and, not least, a formidable performance at last year's Ryder Cup, contributing three points out of four.
"Dave is very good at looking at how I practice," he says. "He makes me practice in such a way that it recreates playing under pressure, which is what he does in rugby too. Instead of me just going out there and hitting balls, he gets me hitting maybe five balls working on specific swing thoughts, and then a sixth ball, one shot, which I have to hit a particular way. So it's less about mindless practice, more about thought. We do lots of drills, chipping into circles, and if I don't do it I have to do it again. That creates a bit more angst, a bit more pressure. He's not a psychologist, it's mostly about the physical side, but he also makes sure I'm diligent about writing down the positives, re-reading my stats, telling myself I'm a great player, stuff like that."
Also helping him reach the top, if a little less directly, is his 14-month-old daughter, Elle. "I'm passionate about golf, I want to be the best, but fatherhood has shown me that if it doesn't work out there are more important things in life. She helps me get over a bad round a lot quicker than I used to, which has made me more mature, which makes me a better player."
Elle is plainly one of Donald's favourite subjects, but world No 1s tend not to stand around chewing the fat any longer than they have to. He has to go, but before he does I have one final question. He majored in art theory and practice while on his golf scholarship at NorthWestern University, and remains a keen painter, with a particular affection for contemporary art. So, assuming he could buy anything he wanted (and with more than $17m in prize money alone to his name it doesn't require a leap of the imagination), what would he choose?
"Actually," he says, "I'm looking at maybe buying a Damien Hirst. I've got someone who looks around for me, and we're redesigning our master bedroom, so, yeah, it would be nice to have something of his." So should he win the 140th Open Championship, he might end up with a shark suspended in formaldehyde on his bedroom wall? "No, he says solemnly, "it will be one of his more normal pieces."
Donald likes normality. He might even be the most normal guy ever to be the best in the world at anything. Hence, perhaps, his 16-1 odds for the Open yesterday morning, well behind those for McIlroy and Westwood. It might have been the bet of the week.
Teeing off with Tiger: 'I thought, this guy's rubbish!'
The 2003 Open Championship was the first time Luke Donald had ever played with Tiger Woods and he remembers the experience well – particularly Tiger's drive off the first. It showed him just how badly a world No 1 can hit a ball.
Donald, now the top dog but back then ranked 117th in the world, admitted to having nerves on the opening tee as he stood next to the world No 1. It is fair to say his anxiety was eased somewhat by the sight of Woods, holder of seven major titles already, famously carving into rough so thick that the ball was not found in the permitted five minutes.
"I thought 'This guy's rubbish!'," joked Donald. "It made my drive a little bit easier once he hit it way right. I thought 'Well, I can't do any worse than that'. The crowds are quite far back, so it was only a few people looking for the ball, I suppose. It was a strange scenario." And did he say anything to Woods? "No, I stayed out of the way. I was pretty inexperienced." James Corrigan