For anyone who had forgotten in this week of Tiger Woods comebacks and Rory McIlroy relocations, Luke Donald provided a timely reminder here yesterday that he happens to be the world No 1. In a display fitting of the moniker, the Englishman's 64 put him into contention at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational.
His putter had also been guilty of overlooking Donald's identity. For the first two days, Donald – aka the world's best putter – had moaned about his form on the greens. "I should be leading," he said, as the sun set on his 69 on Friday. "But I'm not going to panic. The putting will come back."
It did. The very next day. Out in 31, Donald could even afford to bogey the last for the day's best score, to haul himself to nine-under, three off Adam Scott's pace. "The only difference today was that I putted well," he said, unsure what had changed overnight. "It was a pleasant surprise. Tee to green this is as solid as I've played for a while. I expect more of the same tomorrow."
He expects more of the same next week. No doubt, Donald has enjoyed a fantastic year, winning three times and rising above Lee Westwood to the top of the order. Yet in terms of his principal goal at the start of the season he has fallen short. Donald set out into 2011 determined to contend in all four majors. Mission completed at the Masters, where he finished tied for fourth, but mission cocked-up at the US Open and Open, where he posted a 45th and a missed cut respectively. This week's USPGA at Atlanta Athletic Club can be his sanctuary.
Still, first things first; there is a second WGC title of the year to win. With 11 players within five shots of the lead, Donald will have to be smart off the mark in today's stampede. Scotland will be represented. Martin Laird, a US-based Glaswegian, shot a 67 yesterday and on 10-under is in sight of his biggest success to date. Laird's chance should not be underestimated, as he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and is a quality performer. Indeed, such a big hitter has the game to contend at the USPGA.
Georgia has not been far from anybody's mind here. Lee Westwood came off after a 68 and spoke of his excitement going into the season's final major.
"My front nine today was as well as I could play," he said, looking back on a 33 which saw him have birdie chances on every hole. "The putting wasn't bad. But I've been in a rut for two years so it's not going to change overnight."
Westwood has been working with the mind doctor, Bob Rotella, and the putting coach, Dave Stockton. They have told him to be less mechanical, to be more natural. If it makes any sense, that is against Westwood's nature. "It's hard to think about not thinking," he said.
Putting woes have been a feature of this week. McIlroy has probably been the best tee to green, but in his own words "they just won't drop". Nevertheless he is in tremendous nick and even has a squeak of winning the fourth title of his career today. A 67 put him on seven-under on this squeezed leaderboard.
"I put myself in great positions but didn't convert the chances," he said. "But at least I've given myself a shot."
One person who won't be winning is Woods. No fairytale comeback for the big bad bear. A 72 left him in a tie for 38th, halfway down the field.
"I didn't putt well again today," he said, going on to explain how his iron play was sharper. If his putter does oblige at the USPGA he can contend. "I'm used to putting on Bermuda [grass] at home – this is Bent [grass]. I felt more comfortable when I was playing my practice round on Monday. So I'm looking forward to Atlanta in that regard."
Bubba Watson played with Woods yesterday and said his friend had every excuse to dream of a 15th major. "After a three-month break, the first tournament you're going to be rusty," said Watson. "But the 18th today showed how great he is. He hit a kind of pitching wedge that sliced over that tree [on the way to a bogey]. That just proves he's close. He's obviously coming back."
As it is, Woods might have to watch Steve Williams, the caddie he sacked last month after 12 years and 13 majors together, carrying the bag of a champion. Scott's 66 took him one clear of the Japanese wonderkid Ryo Ishikawa, who matched Donald's 64.
The 19-year-old Ishikawa would become the youngest winner in America since 1911. For "the Bashful Prince" who has ripped up all the record books in Japan, this would be standard. Except this is the first time he has packed his home form in his luggage. Ishikawa's best finish in a US strokeplay event is a tie for 20th at this year's Masters. A quite baffling anomaly.