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Low-key Luke Donald is weekend’s man to beat

Accepting his 2011 player of the year award last week at the annual Golf Writers Association of America dinner on the eve of the Masters, Luke Donald looked out at a banquet room filled largely with reporters and joked he’d rarely seen so many writers in a room when he’s talking.

Donald then reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a wig of curly black hair and pulled it over his head.

“Maybe, if I looked like this,” Donald joked, taking a good-humored jab at the media’s fascination with Rory McIlroy, the man who briefly supplanted Donald at No. 1 in the world rankings earlier this year.

Donald was having fun with his understated image. He is respected for his talents both on and off the course, whether it’s becoming the first player to ever lead both the U.S. and European Tour money lists in the same season, his painting or his thoughtfulness on all manner of subjects.

In an age too cluttered with look-at-me athletes and celebrities, Donald is a comforting change. He may not crackle with Phil Mickelson’s charisma or attract the wonder of McIlroy, but Donald is at the top of his sport and has no plans to surrender his throne.

He isn’t brash but he’s confident. He isn’t flamboyant but his game can be spectacular. He isn’t going to drop jaws with his length off the tee but put him in a bunker and it’s like Houdini.

When Donald tees it up at 8:20 a.m. Thursday, he’ll be the man to beat in the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town. If you’re into trending, dismiss Donald’s tied-for-32nd finish at the Masters last week and focus on his record at Pete Dye’s lowcountry masterpiece.

In Donald’s last three appearances at Harbour Town, he’s finished tied for second, tied for third and second again last year when he lost the tartan jacket to Brandt Snedeker in a playoff.

This time last year, Donald was on the edge of glory, needing a victory here to reach No. 1 for the first time in his career. Though he tends to hide his nerves, tucking himself beneath his ever-present visor, Donald knew No. 1 was there to be snagged when he and Snedeker went to extra holes last year.

“I remember being pretty nervous come Sunday because I knew what was on the line,” Donald said Wednesday. “Now that I’ve been No. 1 for a number of weeks, it’s not something I think about too much. My focus this week is just trying to win the tournament.”

Shortly after last year’s Heritage, Donald moved to No. 1 and held it for 40 consecutive weeks. He fell to No. 2 behind McIlroy when Rory won the Honda Classic in March. Two weeks later, Donald reclaimed No. 1 with his victory at the Transitions Championship.

This is Donald’s 44th week at No. 1. As a matter of perspective, that equals how long Nick Price held No.1 and it’s longer than Ernie Els, David Duval, Vijay Singh and others held the spot.

What he did last year was unprecedented. On the PGA Tour, he won twice, had two seconds, two thirds and, in the last event of the year, made six straight birdies on the last day to beat Webb Simpson for both the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic trophy and the tour money title. On the European Tour, Donald won twice and captured the Order of Merit.

If anyone doubted Donald’s fire, the questions were extinguished with his victory at the Transitions when he took back No. 1 from McIlroy and made no secret of what it meant to him.

“When Rory went to No. 1, I think a lot of people thought that was going to be it for a while,” Donald said. “But obviously I feel like I’ve got a lot of good golf in me. I feel like I’m just kind of getting into the peak of my career. The last couple of years I’ve really figured out how to win.”

A victory is the only thing he’s missing at Harbour Town.