The 2011 champion put his nightmare season behind him and reeled off a hat-trick of birdies from the third to get to within three shots of the lead before taking three shots to escape after plugging his third shot under the lip of a greenside bunker at the sixth.
But despite eventually penciling in a quadruple bogey eight he didn’t let it cool his ambitions to win another Claret Jug and signed for a 71 that left him just four shots behind 49-year old leader Miguel Angel Jiménez on one-over par.
“That sort of thing can happen to anybody playing on a links,” said Clarke, who has plummeted from 30th to 437th in the world since he won the Open. “Thankfully I just forgot about it and moved on.
“I missed my tee shot up in the left rough and did the right thing and laid it up and pulled my wedge three yards and I was plugged against the lip of the bunker and couldn’t get it out.
“I tried to be smart with the next go and left it in there. And then I was sensible with my third go. So I made an eight and carried on. What could I do? That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
Playing brilliantly from tee to green, Clarke birdied the ninth and 12th to get back to level for the day before shrugging off a bogey at the last.
“I hit the ball lovely all day and gave myself lots of chances everywhere,” said the Dungannon man. “There’s a long way to go. I’m not quite playing the way I want to but I am not that far off.”
The Ulsterman was joined in the draw for the last two rounds by Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington and Shane Lowry as Gareth Maybin joined Rory McIlroy in missing the eight over par cut.
McDowell battled to card three birdies and three bogeys in a level par 71 alongside Tiger Woods to make it on four over par.
“I think battling pretty much sums up the way you’ve got to play on this golf course,” McDowell said. “But I struck it much better today and had more control on my ball flight.”
With three wins and five missed cuts in his last eight starts, McDowell is hoping he can keep his magical run going, joking: “It’s not like me to make a cut. So I’m pretty happy with that. Get your money on me now.”
He added: “I’m ecstatic to be here, it’s going to be a beautiful weekend. This golf course is going to get nothing but tougher and tougher. If I can go out tomorrow and shoot a number about, who knows?”
Harrington faced an anxious wait to see if six over would make the cut but cruised in comfortably by two shots despite the disappointment of four bogeys in his last five holes for a 75.
“It was a disappointing day,” Harrington said. “I played quite nicely on the way out and didn’t make enough coming in there. And obviously dropped four shots in the last five holes is never much fun.”
But it was a happier finish for Lowry, who was seven over par playing the 18th and felt he needed at least a par to make the cut
In the end he went one better, blasting a driver down the right and chasing a 140-yard nine iron up to four feet to set up his lone birdie of the day.
“I knew par would do, but no matter what you hit off the tee there is trouble in play,” Lowry said.
“I’ve got no three wood in the bag this week so if I hit five wood or two iron the bunker on the right is in play and it’s a long way in to try and make four from there.
“I had 140 yards to the flag and it was a perfect nine iron, punched it up the green to four feet behind the hole.
“I am proud of myself, especially the tee shot and the second shot I hit on 18 and then to knock in that tricky little putt as well was nice.
“There is definitely a sense of relief because I really wanted to make the cut. Not that there was pressure on me but I still feel like I can do well this week.
“If you shoot any sort of score tomorrow you have, maybe not a chance of winning, but a chance of good finish.”
Maybin was always in trouble after his opening 78 and added a 76 to finish alongside McIlroy on 12 over.