Luke Donald: 'We have kept the country waiting'
World No 1 believes he can be the first Englishman to win The Open in 20 years
The last time an Englishman won The Open Championship, the best-selling song of the year was Whitney Houston's warbling version of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You", a sentiment that wasn't shared by Prince Charles and Princess Diana, who announced their separation.
It has been 20 years of hurt. Sir Nick Faldo was a mere Welwyn Garden City commoner in 1992 when he kissed the Claret Jug on the 18th green at Muirfield in East Lothian before thanking the media "from the heart of my bottom". But, as the 141st Open Championship circus pitches its tent at Royal Lytham & St Annes next week just along the Fylde coast from Blackpool, England can once again boast the No 1 golfer in the world.
Luke Donald was just 14 years old, watching on television, as Faldo bagged the fifth of his six major victories (the last came at the 1996 Masters). Donald was already in love with the game and says the other two Opens that stand out from his childhood memories are Faldo's victory at St Andrews in 1990 and Seve Ballesteros's at Royal Lytham in 1988.
But before the 34-year-old Donald sets off to try to emulate his idol Faldo, and in so doing break his major-winning drought, there is the defence of his Scottish Open title to take care of this week on the links of Castle Stuart in Inverness.
Maintaining his high standards in the Highlands is to be expected, but the golfing world knows it is all about peaking for the assault on the summit, the Big One, The Open. Donald's mind is already whirring with thoughts of his first return to Royal Lytham since his amateur days, where he admits he can't remember his scores and therefore guesses that they can't have been very good.
"The Open is special," Donald says. "It has a certain buzz about it. Walking up that 18th fairway with the grandstands packed, with the giant yellow scoreboards and the clock. There's nothing like it."
You can sense the rising expectation in his voice. "I feel the same way about it now as I did in 1999 when I played in The Open for the first time. I was probably a bit like a kid in a sweetshop back then. I was excited and nervous just to be at The Open.
"Now it's all about trying to win it. It's been a while since an Englishman won The Open," he says. "We have been keeping the country waiting."
Indeed, such has been the length of the wait that, back in 1992, Tiger Woods was still winning junior amateur championships in the States. At Wimbledon, Andre Agassi had just won his first of eight Grand Slams, and Linford Christie was about to bulldoze his way to 100m gold at the Barcelona Olympics. Nigel Mansell won the British Grand Prix and was F1's champion driver, Denmark (yes, Denmark) beat Germany in Sweden to become European football champions, and Leeds United (remember them?) finished top of the last-ever old First Division. Meanwhile, the UK was stuck in a political and cultural cul-de-sac. The IRA bombed London and Manchester, Neil Kinnock's Labour Party lost the General Election, this time with John Major as Prime Minister instead of Margaret Thatcher, and the BBC launched the much-ridiculed soap opera El Dorado.
Donald watched it all unfold on television from the sofa in the living room of his parents' home in High Wycombe. It was Faldo that fired his imagination most.
Donald first got to navigate the sandy moonscape of an Open Championship as a 21-year-old amateur in 1999. He shot 63 at Leven Links in local qualifying to make it to Carnoustie. His mate Simon Dyson (now a fellow professional and winner of nine tournaments) offered to caddie for him. They couldn't afford a hotel room so they slept on the floor of a friend's house.
"I shot 12 over par. I played the last four holes eight over par over the two rounds and missed the cut by just two shots," Donald says. But those were just the bare statistics on his scorecard. "I had an amazing time," he says. "I played a practice round with Phil Mickelson, Billy Mayfair and Mark Calcavecchia [the 1989 Open champion].
"I just shyly put my name down next to Phil's on the practice sheet in the locker room. I sneakily made my way to the first tee and said, 'Do you mind if I join you guys?' I suppose being a bit of a shy lad, still in college, it took some courage to do that. But it was my first Open and I wanted to get the most out of it. They tried to get me involved in a money game. Phil said he'd back me and cover me."
Donald's adventure didn't end there. "I was drawn to play the first two rounds with Paul Lawrie and Peter Lonard," he says. "Of course Paul became a lot more famous after that week." Lawrie was the benefactor of Jean van de Velde's comedy routine in the Barry Burn and won the play-off against the Frenchman and the Texan Justin Leonard, the 1997 Open champion.
"That's a cool story for me to tell about my first Open," Donald says, "but I need to go on and make my own piece of Open history now. You need one guy to inspire a generation. For me that was Padraig [Harrington] when he won his two Opens in 2007 and 2008 and the USPGA Championship in 2008. "If he can do it, so can I."
Westwood's Open doubt after injury
Lee Westwood's prospects of playing in The Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes in less than two weeks suffered a serious blow when he hurt his leg and slid out of contention at the French Open.
His fellow Briton David Howell and Dane Anders Hansen grabbed a share of the lead after a weather-interrupted third round on Saturday.
The world No 3 slipped and injured his groin walking to the first tee while talking to playing partner Richard Sterne's caddie before dropping seven shots in his first six holes en route to a five-over-par 76.
The Englishman was 12 shots behind Howell (67) and Hansen (69), who finished on a six-under total of 207, a stroke ahead of South African George Coetzee (70) and two in front of Frenchman Raphaël Jacquelin (70) and German Marcel Siem (73).
"I strained something in my groin in the right leg and just tweaked my right knee as well. I didn't really have a lot of confidence in it," Westwood told reporters.
"I tried not to overdo it on the first few holes and I lost everything down the right," added Westwood, who also suffered an injury to his right calf and ankle in Paris in 2010. "This tournament has been a curse for me the last few times I've played it."
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