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Luke Donald starting off No. 1

2/15/2012 - Golf

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- Luke Donald is impeccably attired in a blue Polo Ralph Lauren sweater and beige pants. Imagine a proper English gentleman from an upper-class background talking about his career to a group of admirers. He speaks in complete sentences, and his diction is perfect. He's thoughtful and reflective.

This is the 34-year-old former Northwestern University art major on the eve of his 2012 debut on the PGA Tour at the Northern Trust Open at the Riviera Country Club. He's a classic-looking player on one of the few classic golf courses left on the tour. He's coming off a 2011 season that saw him win four tournaments worldwide, and money titles on the PGA Tour and the European Tour.

This is Donald's 38th consecutive week as the No. 1 player in the world, yet he still doesn't quite seem comfortable in the role or suited for the lofty expectations that come with assuming that mantle. In fairness, he might feel comfortable in the role, but he's never touted himself as the best in the world or the greatest of all time or the heir apparent to Tiger Woods.

He's the guy who once told his teacher that he wasn't sure he ever wanted what came with being Tiger.

"I've always focused on trying to put myself into contention, give myself chances to win tournaments and win majors, and the ranking is just a process of some good play," Donald said Wednesday.

Staying true to the process has kept Donald's feet planted firmly on the ground since May, when he took over the top spot from his friend and countryman Lee Westwood. In the offseason, he worked on swing fundamentals as if he had struggled to keep his playing privileges. His teacher, Pat Goss, who was his coach at Northwestern, pores over his statistics, looking for ways to help him improve in all areas of his game.

Donald is a grinder but plays the game in a courtly manner, in the effortless way that Roger Federer moves around a tennis court. Where Woods seems to expend everything on every shot, Donald is graceful and elegant with a beautiful short game.

On Wednesday, he was asked how his great 2011 season might have changed some people's perception about him as a player.

"I think the only thing that might have changed some people's perception is the fact that with my game I was able to get to No. 1 not being a modern-day power player," Donald said. "I certainly am not the best ball striker. I'm not the best off the tee. But with a good short game, I was able to get to the top of the world rankings. Maybe that influenced some of the way people practiced."

Donald has gotten the attention of some of the world's best players who are here this week at Riviera aiming to supplant him at the top of the rankings. At 17th in the world, Sergio Garcia is a reinvigorated player after a lengthy slump. As a player who has for years played an international schedule, he is particularly impressed that Donald won the money titles last year on both major tours.

"It's never really been done by a guy that is a member of both tours. So it shows you how difficult it is to do it," Garcia said. "For a guy like Luke, which is a good friend of mine, to be able to do, as well as No. 1, too, it was great to see."

Garcia, 32, is one of 27 in the field this week at Riviera who are in the top 50 in the world. Jason Day (No. 7), Adam Scott (No. 8) and Dustin Johnson (No.10) are the other top-10 players who fill out this strong field, which includes five of the six 2011 PGA Tour winners.

Aaron Baddeley is the defending champion but he's overshadowed this week by Phil Mickelson, who is coming off a spectacular win last week at Pebble Beach. Mickelson, who won here in 2008 and 2009, had struggled in his first few tournaments but miraculously found his game with a final-round 64.

"I really like Riviera. I mean, it's one of the best courses in the world," Mickelson said. "I'm looking forward to trying to get in contention this weekend."

As the favorite this week, he'll have to contend with a mix of some very young players, including amateurs Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay, and one particular older player, Fred Couples, who is making his 30th appearance in the tournament. After wins here in 1990 and 1992, the 52-year-old Seattle native is still confident around Riviera.

"I'm much older, but I still feel like I can play here," said Couples, who finished in a tie for seventh here last year.

Donald would love to have Couples' green jacket. This week will mark the start of his journey to Augusta.

On Wednesday, he was asked about the best and worst parts of being No. 1.

"I think the best part of being No. 1 is knowing that my best golf is good enough to get me to that No. 1 spot, just from a confidence and mental standpoint," he said.

Only time will tell whether that confidence and satisfaction at being No. 1 will be enough to propel him to his first major championship.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.