Darren Clarke has Masters in mind

After weeks of dealing with Ryder Cup captaincy matters, Darren Clarke can at least for the next fortnight get back to focusing fully on his chosen profession.

Darren Clarke has Masters in mind

That begins today with the Shell Houston Open and a week later teeing up in what will be his 13th Masters and taking up the fourth of his five-year exemption after capturing the 2011 Open Championship.

Clarke had been due to play a practice round on Tuesday against rival USA Team captain Davis Love III on this week’s Golf Club of Houston host course, but the American texted Clarke on Monday indicating he was undergoing surgery on an injured right toe.

Like Augusta National, Clarke is no stranger to this week’s $6.6m (€6.13m) host venue, though he will not want reminding he has missed the cut in his last four appearances, dating back to 2006, though he was second to Vijay Singh on his debut in 2002 at the TPC Woodlands course.

“It’s nice to get back to what I guess is my day job and the good thing is that they try this week to get the Houston course set up like Augusta,” said Clarke.

“In my last couple of tournaments in South Africa, I started hitting the ball very, very well and I just want to continue on from there.

“Then, next week, it’s the first Major of the year and it’s going to be a pleasure getting back there and Augusta should be pristine, as it always is.

“So, while I have got other roles in golf, it still gets my juices flowing, thoughts of playing in the Masters.

“I’ve played Augusta many times before and it’s all a case of minimising your mistakes as you have to hit good golf shots, but, in saying that, there will still be some butterflies in the stomach standing on that first tee again, but then they won’t be as bad as when I first played there.”

Unlike Love III, who has a real ‘stars and stripes’ theme and had the letters USA emblazoned on his golf bag when observed last week in San Antonio, Clarke has a simple Ryder Cup logo under his name on his bag.

Also, there were just six people watching Clarke practice at the opposite end of the range to the main body of players ahead of Clarke — who were teeing-up in yesterday’s Pro-Am — and in his first appearance on US soil as Europe’s new captain.

“The reception since arriving here in Houston has all been very positive and Shell hosted a dinner last night for all the players, and I was introduced as Ryder Cup captain, so it’s all been very nice,” he said.

Clarke is confident Tiger Woods will be among those competing at Augusta.

“It’s wonderful that Tiger is back playing again, as the whole golfing world will be wanting to see one of the superstars of the game playing again,” said Clarke.

“So, hopefully, Tiger will be in good form and playing the sort of golf we have been accustomed to and, while it is a tough place to come back to, Tiger’s played well there before and it’s a golf course he knows very, very well, so it will be great to see him back there.”

If Woods joins this year’s Masters field it will help, as many are already suggesting, to lift some of the media spotlight from the shoulders of World No 1 Rory McIlroy in his quest to join Woods as only one of six players to win a grand slam.

“The pressure on Rory next week will be coming all from the media, but then I don’t think it will make it any easier for the rest of us, as Augusta never gets any easier, no matter what is going on,” said Clarke, who made his Masters debut in 1998, when he secured a best-ever result of eighth.

He has advised Augusta rookie Shane Lowry to seek out as many long-time Masters competitors as he can in the three days of practice.

Lowry confirmed last week in San Antonio he will play a round with Harrington, but Clarke insists Lowry not stop there.

“My advice to Shane is to play as many practice rounds as he can with guys who’ve been there a lot, so as they can get to know the golf course better and to be aware also of those areas where you can miss the green and be in a better position by far than hitting the green,” he said.

“That all comes from knowing the pin positions, and some of those pin positions are not obvious.”

Clarke is delighted to be returning to Augusta as part of a record-setting five Irish competitors in the season’s first major.

“It speaks volumes for the state of Irish golf at present and to have five teeing up next week is huge, so, long may it continue.”

Clarke’s only uncertainty with a week to the Masters is who will caddy for him in the Par 3 contest, with his two boys tied up in school.

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