Donald shares bond with host Nicklaus

DUBLIN, Ohio -- He starred at an American university, won a couple of PGA Tour events, played for Europe in the Ryder Cup, and on Thursday set a Memorial Tournament record by needing just 20 putts in the first round at Muirfield Village.

But Luke Donald has a far more interesting claim to fame.

Or, at the very least, he is the answer to a pretty good trivia question.

Donald played alongside Jack Nicklaus when the Golden Bear played his final round of golf in an official PGA Tour event.

That was in 2005 at the Old Course, where Nicklaus had all of St. Andrews on its feet as he played his final strokes of competitive golf. That he was able to coax home a birdie putt as his final act is just part of the Nicklaus legend.

Donald, who shot an opening-round 64 on Thursday at Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament and had a 3-shot lead over Jim Furyk, Ted Purdy, Jason Day and Thomas Aiken, was there for history.

"I've been very fortunate to spend a decent amount of time with Jack Nicklaus, a little bit through my relationship we have at RBS [Royal Bank of Scotland] and a little bit through being a member of the Bear's Club in Jupiter [Fla.]

"I see him quite a bit in the winter, and he's very generous. … I've been very fortunate to spend time with [him], and it's nice to play well at his tournament."

It might seem unusual that Donald could be so close to Nicklaus, given that the former is from England, is 38 years younger, lives part of the year in Chicago and is hardly in the mold of the power player that was Nicklaus.

But there are several reasons for their friendship.

A decade ago when he played for Northwestern, Donald won the 1999 Jack Nicklaus Award, which is given annually to the nation's top college golfer. That earned him an invitation to the 2000 Memorial, where he tied for 51st as an amateur.

From there, the unlikely friends got to know each other through the relationship with RBS, membership at Nicklaus' dream golf course in northern Palm Beach County -- the Bear's Club -- and, of course, those first two rounds of the 2005 Open Championship along with Tom Watson.

"There was a part of me that was extremely happy to be in the pairing, and part of me wondered if it would be a distraction," Donald said. "To be honest, it wasn't too big of a distraction. I think I would never give up that distraction for the chance to be in that pairing. It's something very special, something I felt honored to be part of. … The last couple of holes on Friday is something that I'll always remember."

Donald's first round Thursday was memorable in a different way because it required so few putts.

The 20-putt tally was the lowest total in tournament history, and just two shy of the PGA Tour record of 18, accomplished six times -- most recently in 2000 by Corey Pavin at the Bell Canadian Open.

Donald had a stretch of six straight birdies starting at the 18th hole, and he birdied eight of nine holes at one point. He played his last 11 holes in 8 under par.

"All year, I've been trying to focus on hitting more greens and hitting more fairways because I have been putting the ball well," said Donald, 31, who leads the PGA Tour in total putting and putting average (1.697) and is sixth in putts per round with 27.95. He is also first in putting from inside 5 feet (99.08 percent) and first from inside 10 feet (91.31 percent).

"This course is reasonably generous off the tee, but you have to put your approach shots in good position to give yourself uphill putts because downhill putts are extremely, extremely quick and you have to give them a lot of respect. I did a good job of giving myself some makeable putts today, which helped."

Donald has long been regarded as one of the game's solid young players, but he has not won since the Honda Classic in 2006. Yet he still ranks 21st in the Official World Golf Rankings and has four top-10 finishes this year, including a tie for second at the Verizon Heritage.

Last year, Donald's season was cut short at the U.S. Open when he suffered tendon damage on his left wrist and had surgery in August. He had a slight setback at this year's Accenture Match Play, where he conceded a match on the 18th tee trailing Ernie Els 1 down.

It turned out to be scar tissue that was bothering him and wasn't a serious problem.

Now, Donald is hoping to get serious about winning again, and Jack's tournament would be a great place to do it.

"It's a special tournament," he said. "The players look forward to this event. We're treated extremely well. It's one of the better courses we play all year, and the best greens we play all year. It would mean a lot to play well here and have a chance to win.

"But it's extra special because I know Jack a little bit better than some of the other guys."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.