At even, Donald finally in contention at a U.S. Open

Luke Donald fired a 2-under 68 in the first round of the U.S. Open to sit one shot off the lead.

Luke Donald fired a 2-under 68 in the first round of the U.S. Open to sit one shot off the lead.

ARDMORE, Pa. -– Just when you caught yourself asking, “Where has this been all along?” Luke Donald provided reasons why you haven’t seen him stalking a U.S. Open championship.

That’s what happens when you have a long, grueling day of golf; you get a sprinkling of the good with enough dashes of the bad to leave you wondering. In Donald’s case, the jury may still be out, but the Englishman seems confident that he’s in it for the long haul at this 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club.

“You try not to panic in U.S. Opens,” Donald said. “You try to take each hole as it comes.”

Having left the course late Friday evening at 4 under, Donald returned to finish Round 1 Friday morning, then put in even more work with a completed Round 2. Playing 23 holes in 4 over, the Englishman dropped to level-par 140. The good news is, he’s just one off of Billy Horschel’s clubhhouse lead. The bad news is, Donald knows he has to tighten things up, that he squandered too many shots and failed to execute the U.S. Open game plan in crucial times.

Exhibit A: Donald resumed Round 1 in a cool morning mist and played the demanding 14th, 15th and 17th holes into a challenging breeze, yet made par at each. But at the 16th and 18th, each playing down wind, Donald reached the green in regulation and three-putted for bogey.

Exhibit B: Having birdied the par-3 third in Round 2 to push to 3 under, Donald promptly bogeyed the par-5 fourth, par-4 fifth, par-4 sixth, and par-4 seventh.

Momentum, Sir Luke. You’re supposed to build on it, not fall off of it.

He smiled and looked at the glass as half full.

“It was nice to make a birdie on nine,” he said.

Ah, the ninth. One of four intriguing par 3s at Merion, holes that Donald has mastered. Heck, it if were a Par 3 Tournament he’d be holding the championship hardware, with five of his nine birdies coming at the shortish holes. “Shortish,” be relative, of course, because when stretched to the max they play 256 yards (the third), 236 (nine), and 236 (17). Only the 13th, at roughly 115 yards, is dainty, but in the end they all count, so Donald is not offering apologies.

“I’ve certainly played the par 3s very well,” he said. “It’s obviously been a big key to my score.”

What’s been a big part of Donald’s rise to the top of the world rankings (remember, it wasn’t long ago when he was No. 1; presently he’s No. 6) is a consistency that seemingly makes him a top-10 threat every time he sticks the peg in the ground.

Except at the U.S. Open, that is. There, he struggles and if you scratch your head and wonder why, you have to first start with this: You may envision Donald as a fairways-and-greens aficionado, but he is nothing of the sorts. Instead, statistics support the notion that the Englishman is a dreaded combination – shortish and not-so-straight – and nowhere does that penalize you quite like the national championship. No surprise, then, that Donald not only hasn’t contended in one of these things, he’s still looking for his first top 10 – and he’s had nine tries already.

So, maybe the 10th time will be a charm?

At 35, he’d love to think so and for positive reinforcement, Donald can take great comfort in his best U.S. Open start. In his previous 29 rounds, he had broken par just three times, each a 69, so his opening 68 was a “PR,” as they say. Never has he been better than sixth after any round in the U.S. Open, but he was second to Phil Mickelson (67) after 18 and stands a good chance at being top five when Round 2 is completed Saturday morning.

So even though he bogeyed a third of his holes in a second-round 72, Donald sounded a positive perspective. He’s even honest about why he has failed in this major championship.

“I think in a U.S. Open, usually success comes from hitting a lot of fairways and hitting a lot of greens – and I think my game is more from the hole backwards. I’ve always kind of worked that way.”

(Check out the equipment he is using this week at Merion)

In other words, he’s worked tirelessly to become one of the great short-game artists on Tour, but the fairways and greens stuff still lacks. He presently sits 34th in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour, 149th in greens in regulation and those rankings are reflective of his career. Between 2008-12, Donald has never ranked better than 38th in accuracy or 41st in GIR.

“This year,” Donald said, “I’ve made a little bit more of a conscious effort to try and change that.”

Consider Round 1 a success – 10 fairways, 12 greens.

Round 2? He hit more fairways, 12, but fewer greens, 10.

Beyond those keys, however, Donald knows he has to avoid mental mistakes like what took place at the par-5 fourth. Wide left and in deep rough with his second shot, Donald tried to hack out, but left his third shot in rough. Then he chunked his fourth into a bunker and made bogey. Compounding that mishap, Donald missed shortish par saves at the fifth and sixth holes, then three three-putted from 20 feet to bogey the seventh.

Aggravation could have settled in, but Donald his great belief in his skill set, even if it hasn’t parlayed into U.S. Open riches. True, in his 29 U.S. Open rounds before this year he was a whopping 87 over. True, too, that when you toss in a saturated golf course and some massively long holes, the Englishman wasn’t jumping up and down on the eve of the season’s second major.

“I think everyone thought that as soon as the course got wet it was going to play easy,” Donald said. “The scores certainly aren’t showing that.”

Like many, Donald said he would prefer firm and fast, but it’s not like he’s asking for his money back.

Backing up his 68 with a 72 has him where he feels he belongs - in the hunt. It reinforces the confidence he gained from last week’s scouting mission, too.

“I think that I got a really good look (at Merion) last week,” he said. “I felt like it’s a course where it wasn’t too demanding in terms of having to hit a lot of drivers. I think that put a lot of irons into my hands off tees and I just felt like it was a little bit more suited to my style of play.”

Halfway through, it’s hard to argue against him.

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