Clarke ready for Open road

FOURTH at The K-Club a fortnight ago, second at Loch Lomond over the weekend.

The graph is moving nicely for Darren Clarke, widely regarded as more than a dark horse at 28/1 for the British Open Championship starting over the venerable Old Course tomorrow.

At 37, time is moving on for Clarke as far as capturing that elusive first major title is concerned. He’s been close a couple of times, especially in 1997 at Royal Troon, where he shanked a ball onto the beach off the second tee in the final round when only a shot off the lead.

In the end, he had to sink a 25-foot birdie putt on the 18th to tie for second. Royal Lytham St Annes followed four years later and he was let down by a cold putter before a double-bogey at the 71st pushed him back into a share of third.

He’s also had another top seven finish and twice came in 11th so by this stage, the Tyroneman should know what it takes to capture an Open. Because of his wife Heather’s illness, he was recently forced to take a month off and the break may have freshened him up.

More importantly, Heather is feeling a lot better having attended the JP McManus pro-am banquet last week and all going well, may be at St Andrews.

So there’s a huge feel good factor there for Darren who used his time off to work on his short game both at home and at the Queenwood club, something that paid off at Loch Lomond where he used up only 22 putts in his second round of 65.

Clarke hadn’t played the Old Course when we chatted yesterday but has been kept up to speed by his experienced caddy Billy Foster who spent eight hours out there yesterday.

He believes it won’t be as “straightforward” as usual but he has played here umpteen times and so won’t suffer for want of course knowledge.

As for a St Andrews Open, he enthused: “Of course it gives you an extra buzz. St Andrews, the Home of Golf and the Open, the biggest and best tournament in the world.”

Of the new tee at the 14th that stretches the par five to 618 yards, the longest on the championship rota, he accepted: “it is going to be brutally difficult, unbelievable if the wind blows against or across.

"I’m hoping to draw on all my Open experience to cope with this and whatever else the course throws up. I’m hopeful of getting myself into a position where I can challenge.”

Interestingly, Clarke insists that he struggled a bit at both The K-Club and Loch Lomond and that in spite of his high finishes, believes there is still room for improvement. Furthermore, he says his striking in the final round on Sunday last was “fantastic.”

Another positive was the presence of his short game coach Stan Utley and they worked hard on his putting.

“When Heather was laid-up, I didn’t have much time to spend on my putting and consequently it wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be,” he said.

“Stan’s here this week as well and if I can combine my putting and my long game, I’ll be okay.”

Those of us who watched his every shot on that fateful Sunday at Troon in ‘97 feared that Clarke might never again have such a good opportunity of winning the Open. He sees it differently, pointing out: “Most Open winners have been there before even if that trend has changed over the past couple of years.

"Troon was an obvious Open where I could have gone on to win but that was my first time up there and so I can’t be too harsh on myself for losing that one.

“Tee to green at Lytham, I played as well as I could play but I just couldn’t do it on the greens.”

Arguably, the two biggest victories of Clarke’s career have come in the United States where he has captured both the Andersen Consulting World Match-Play and NEC World Championships but he still believes the Open Championship represents his best chance of a major.

He now seems to have everything in his favour as he goes into the week with a couple of top four finishes immediately behind him. Surely, there’s only one more place left?

“That would be nice”, he responded with a big laugh. “I’d like to give myself a chance. I still get a bit annoyed when I hit a bad shot but not as annoyed as I used to.

"I’ve been okay for the past couple of weeks, I just got on with it, while this week I think everyone’s going to hit it in the bunkers at some stage or another.

"You’ve just to take it on the chin, chip it out and carry on. If you don’t, you’re going to pay even bigger penalties so I’ll be a little easier on myself than before. There are too many bunkers out there to get away with playing conservative golf. You’ve got to find a middle line.”

Darren prefers not to dwell on Heather’s battle with cancer and diverted straight to the passing the previous night of Padraig Harrington’s father Paddy.

“That was very sad news, I had a long chat with Padraig at JP’s pro-am. He told me what was going on and it’s sad that he’s passed away, but if he was in as much pain as Padraig said he was, then it was for the best,” he said.

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