Clarke in driving seat, but Rory in rear mirror

DARREN CLARKE spent the build-up to this week’s British Open deflecting questions about his protegé Rory McIlroy.

“I’ve gushed enough,” said Clarke good-humouredly in reference to the newly-crowned US Open champion, while quietly preparing for his 20th participation in the tournament he loves most.

Two rounds in and having reached the halfway stage of the 140th Open Championship, it is McIlroy being required to answer questions about his mentor.

Clarke compiled his second two-under-par 68 in successive days at Royal St George’s to take a share of the 36-hole lead at four under with American Lucas Glover, the 2009 US Open champion.

They will tee off in the final group today with a one-stroke advantage over four equally experienced rivals: Chad Campbell, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Thomas Bjorn and reigning PGA champion Martin Kaymer. And four strokes off the pace happily sits current US Open champion McIlroy, who followed up his opening 71 with a grinding one-under 69.

So what did the 22-year-old man of the moment think of his 42-year-old friend leading The Open?

“Yeah, brilliant. This sort of golf really suits his game. He’s grown up on links, and he likes to play different shots... It’s good to see him up there.”

Just not for long, the Holywood star adding: “He’s doing a bit better than me at the moment but I’m planning on changing that.”

For now, though, Clarke is very much the main man, milking the acclaim that was his due as he strode up to the 18th green at the end of a rollercoaster round that included a monster eagle putt at the par-five seventh, five birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey at the par-four fourth.

“It was a little bit more adventurous today than yesterday,” Clarke said. “There was some good and some not so good but overall, 68 is very pleasing.”

It was enough to give Clarke his first taste of an Open lead since he held the outright 36-hole lead at Troon in 1997, the year he had to settle for the runner-up spot behind Justin Leonard. Yet having returned to his homeland after more than a decade in London and spent the winter practising in the wind and rain at Portrush, is there anyone better prepared for the challenges ahead this weekend, when wind and rain is forecast to buffet and lash this Kentish coastline?

“It’s a case of getting used to playing in bad weather on links again, and that’s what I’ve been doing all over the winter at home,” Clarke said. “Hopefully it will stand me in good stead.”

Yesterday there were tricky pin positions to toughen Royal St George’s up as the R&A gave the links some teeth in the prospect of calmer conditions than had been seen on the opening day. They certainly did the trick as the predicted low scores for the morning did not materialise and birdies had to be earned the hard way.

By the time McIlroy got out there, with Glover and Clarke back in the clubhouse at four under, he was only five shots adrift instead of the six he had ended the first round in arrears. And having said he would settle for an opening of 71-69, he got just what he wanted to stay in contention after four birdies and three bogeys contributed to the 69.

“It was a grind,” McIlroy admitted. “Even though it was nice and it was sunny out there, it was very tricky. The course is playing a lot firmer, a lot of cross winds, and to shoot something in the 60s today I’m very pleased with.

“I’ll take that going into the weekend. I’m very happy with my position and within striking distance of the leaders. There’s only seven shots separating this field. It’s very open.”

Those seven shots between first place and the tie for 59th place were not enough to keep Padraig Harrington in Sandwich for the weekend, the two-time champion exiting just the wrong side of the cut line at four over par following a second-round 71. Graeme McDowell was a shot worse and the two Irishmen were joined among the casualties by the world’s numbers one and two Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, pre-tournament American hope Nick Watney and Italian teenage hotshot Matteo Manassero.

Tee-off times in the third round

(Gbr unless stated, all times Local):

(x) denotes amateurs

Starting at hole 1

0855 M Millar (Aus)

0905 P Lawrie, G Bourdy (Fra)

0915 P Casey, K J Choi (Kor)

0925 R Moore (USA), G Woodland (USA)

0935 S Khan, G Havret (Fra)

0945 F De Vries (Ned), F Andersson Hed (Swe)

0955 H Stenson (Swe), E Molinari (Ita)

1005 P Uihlein (USA), B Haas (USA)

1020 B Van Pelt (USA), J Hwang (Kor)

1030 R Barnes (USA), T Watson (USA)

1040 L Oosthuizen (Rsa), J Furyk (USA)

1050 J Rose, T Immelman (Rsa)

1100 J Luiten (Ned), M Wilson (USA)

1110 K Ferrie, H Frazar (USA)

1120 R McEvoy, S Noh (Kor)

1135 S Cink (USA), S Gallacher

1145 G Boyd, R Allenby (Aus)

1155 B Watson (USA), J Day (Aus)

1205 C Howell III (USA), R Sabbatini (Rsa)

1215 R Green (Aus), R Jacquelin (Fra)

1225 S Levin (USA), S Garcia (Spa)

1235 R Fowler (USA), R McIlroy (Irl)

1250 Y Ikeda (Jpn), S Dyson

1300 F Jacobson (Swe), R Rock

1310 W Simpson (USA), S Stricker (USA)

1320 Z Johnson (USA), Y E Yang (Kor)

1330 A Kim (USA), K Stanley (USA)

1340 R Palmer (USA), J Overton (USA)

1350 T Lewis, P Mickelson (USA)

1405 A Scott (Aus), A Hansen (Den)

1415 D Johnson (USA), G Coetzee (Rsa)

1425 T Lehman (USA), D Love III (USA)

1435 C Schwartzel (Rsa), P Larrazabal (Spa)

1445 M A Jimenez (Spa), T Bjorn (Den)

1455 M Kaymer (Ger), C Campbell (USA)

1505 L Glover (USA), D Clarke (Irl)

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