Clarke whistles straight into lead

THE IRISH influence at Whistling Straits, this remarkable golf course on the shores of Lake Michigan, was enormous ever before the 86th US PGA got under way yesterday.

By early afternoon, it looked as if they had taken over the place altogether with Darren Clarke shooting a spectacular course record seven under par, nine-birdie 65 to take the early lead. And to ensure he wasn't lonely up there at the head of affairs, Padraig Harrington birdied his last three holes to sign for a four under par 68. The big disappointment was Graeme McDowell's 77, a bitterly disappointing outcome for the young Ulsterman who had to call a two stroke penalty on himself at the 15th where his caddy unwittingly raked a bunker unaware that his player was in the same hazard albeit 40 yards away.

Clarke's 65 left him one ahead of playing partner Justin Leonard and pre-tournament favourite Ernie Els with Vijay Singh one of those ominously two off the pace.

Clarke has never had the best of memories where his golfing achievements are concerned and he needed reminding that he had previously led a major - he shot 66 in the first round of the 2003 Masters but fell away long before the finish. That was then, this is now, and a much fitter and more focused Clarke has provided himself with the absolutely ideal launching pad from which to go on and capture this first major title.

It was a most imposing performance to watch. He hit all seven fairways on the front nine and even if he missed three on the homeward journey, the last of these was due to a smashing two iron tee shot running about six inches into light rough. He hit 15 greens in regulation and had only 25 putts.

True championship winning form but Clarke was far from getting ahead of himself. He has been around long enough to know that you don't win titles on the first day, but you certainly can lose them. On that count, he has to be perfectly pleased with the added bonus of a course record.

"I didn't think after practising on Monday that I would start with 65," said a delighted Clarke. "We got fortunate with the conditions this morning. The greens were holding, we were able to fly at the flags and rolled the ball well on the greens. It's good when you have the other guys in your match also playing well, we kind of pull each along. K.J. Choi birdied the first five, I birdied the first four, I've lost count of how many Justin Leonard had from the 7th (six in fact) and the group finished 17 under. Who would have thought that?

"I missed just two shots all day, my approach to the 9th and another to the 13th. But I have learned from experience that this is only the first round of a four-day tournament and I've got to keep on producing the same kind of stuff. But it's a lot better than struggling from the outset. Today was probably better than the 66 at Augusta, because today I hit the ball almost as well as I can hit it. You cannot afford to get ahead of yourself on this golf course because there is so much trouble out there. If the wind keeps blowing and the greens firm up, I don't believe there will be many low scores this week."

Clarke putted better than he has done all year and he put a lot of that down to the work he has been doing with Stan Utley, an American expert on the short game. It was Jay Haas who recommended Utley to Clarke after he had seen him struggling at a few tournaments earlier in the year. Clarke's "stablemate" Paul McGinley had also been to see Utley who has a big reputation on this side of the Atlantic and now has at least two devoted disciples on the other side of the pond.

Then there was the presence of his caddy Billy Foster back at his side for the first time in almost 20 months. Not alone is Foster a more than useful golfer himself but he is also a good man to read the lines on the putting greens and isn't averse to getting down and getting good and dirty if he thinks it will help.

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