SAN FRANCISCO – The top-ranked player in the world didn't make a birdie.
Wait. It gets worse.
Luke Donald couldn't beat a 14-year-old.
"I tried to stay patient, tried to stay positive. But when I had those opportunities on the greens I couldn't take them," the Englishman said after shooting 9-over 79 on Thursday in the opening round of the U.S. Open.
That number that left him tied with teen sensation Andy Zhang, the amateur who at least showed a flair for the big stage by managing to birdie his final hole. Donald likewise had an 18-footer at No. 18 to salvage his birdie-less round, but never threatened the hole.
"My putter kind of went cold today, otherwise I could have probably ground out some more respectable score. But this place is tough," Donald said. "I feel like even from yesterday, it got a lot tougher and I didn't hit the shots when I needed to."
Unfortunately, neither of Donald's partners were much better and every golfer knows how bad play spreads like a cold. No. 2 Rory McIlroy skidded to a 77 and third-ranked Lee Westwood, who recovered somewhat back nine, returned a 73.
"The top three in the world and we make three (birdies) between us," Donald said. "It shows how tough it is."
Still, it was Donald who played as if he was fighting a flu bug. For a short hitter whose game places a premium on accuracy, he hit just six of 14 fairways and half the greens, a tough way to post a score. The strange thing is that Donald came to The Olympic Club in good form, having won his second title of the season three weeks ago. And only last year, the 34-year-old pulled off the unprecedented feat of topping the money lists on both the PGA and European Tours.
But those accomplishments provide a sharp contrast to his record in the tournaments that matter most, especially the U.S. Open. Donald has managed a tie for fifth or better at the Masters, British Open and PGA Championship. But in eight previous U.S. Opens, his best finish is a tie for 12th; twice before, he failed to reach the weekend.
"The U.S. Open, the margins are that much smaller and if you're just a little bit off, which I was today, it's tough," Donald said. "And then you have to really rely on chipping it close and making some putts and I didn't do that."
To say the crown sits uneasy on his head is hardly an understatement. In other sports, the No. 1 ranking either gets you a bye in the opening round or a top seed. In golf, it only increases expectations.
"The slight distraction, which is less so for me because I kind of go under the radar, is that there's a little bit more attention," he conceded earlier in the week. "A little more expectation."
One more round like his first and at least Donald won't have to worry about that.