Donald knows St Andrews better than any other Open course north of the border and was going to be out there with two of the game's greats, men he has got to know well. "In the past I've been distracted, tried to adapt my game to links golf instead of settling for what I'm most comfortable with, but today I played solidly," he said after coming in with a 68.
Donald arrived at this championship with handsome credentials. He tied for third in the Masters as Tiger Woods won his fourth Green Jacket, looked to be in contention for the US Open until he fell away in the third and fourth rounds, and finished strongly in the Players Championship. As Britain's highest-ranked player, his career is on a strong upward curve. But what greater distraction could a young golfer have than to be sent out with Nicklaus, the greatest player the game has known, and Tom Watson, a five-times Open winner?
Even at 7.45am on a morning of low cloud and a cool breeze, there were plenty of people on hand to see the great men tee off. Distraction was not the word for it. Nicklaus and Watson opened with birdies to Donald's par. It immediately concentrated Donald's mind. "In fact, I knew when I first saw the pairing that I was going to have to do a good job of staying in my own bubble, not really getting caught up watching Tom or Jack play," Donald said.
Nicklaus and Watson gave back shots at the second, a hole safely negotiated by Donald before he picked up his first birdie at the third, where a fine drive and wedge left him with an eight-foot putt. With swings shaped to meet the physical restrictions imposed by time, Nicklaus and Watson were shorter off the tee than Donald, who has many years to go before the suppleness of youth leaves him. When Nicklaus won the last of his 18 majors, the Masters, at 46, Donald was a toddler but the respect he holds for his two partners was never allowed to intrude upon his own aspirations.
"I enjoyed their company," Donald said, "but we were all concentrating on the golf. Jack and Tom are still terrific competitors and wanted to shoot as good a round as I did."
Donald began to draw away with his second birdie at the par-five fifth, and it was beginning to look more like a young man's game.
As the morning progressed, the galleries grew larger, the stands fuller for a sight of Nicklaus. At the ninth, I fell into conversation with a man who had journeyed more than four hundred miles to watch Nicklaus play. Stan Petersen, a retired bank official from Shropshire, had never before set foot on a golf course. "But from what I've read and heard, he represents values that have almost disappeared from sport," he said. "Today there is so much greed and selfishness, so little respect for things we once took for granted that I thought I'd take an opportunity to see Nicklaus in the flesh. I have not been disappointed."
Meanwhile, Donald was making steady progress up the leaderboard. It was at the par-four ninth that he struck a three-wood to within pitching distance of the pin and made his third birdie of the round. He dropped a shot at the par-three 11th but got back on course with birdies at 13 and 14. By then, Nicklaus and Watson were beginning to find things tough. Nicklaus, beginning to look his age, his stoop more pronounced, dropped shots at the 11th, 12th and 13th. Nicklaus' target of making the cut was beginning to fade. When Watson dropped a shot at the 17th, he, too, would finish at three over.
Donald was delighted with his 68. "It was a lot of fun out there playing with those two greats," he said. "The atmosphere was amazing. It was nice to play some good golf but it was just a solid start. There are three rounds to go, but I'm happy the way I played."
As for Nicklaus, a competitive spirit still burns so strongly in his ageing body that he probably believes he still has a chance of playing at the weekend. More likely, though, is that today will see his farewell.Reuse content