Clarke surges ahead at USPGA

Darren Clarke let his golf do the talking at the USPGA championship this afternoon with his best-ever start to a major.

Darren Clarke let his golf do the talking at the USPGA championship this afternoon with his best-ever start to a major.

On a Whistling Straits course he had called “brutally difficult” on Monday Clarke began the United States PGA championship with a spectacular seven under par 65 to lead Ernie Els and Justin Leonard by one.

Poulter had caused the first sensation of the day by following his Union Jack trousers at the British Open last month with the colours of the American flag – right leg red and white stripes, left leg blue with white stars.

It drew a fair few comments and some wolf whistles as well, but after a promising opening the 28-year-old could do no better than a one over 73 and in golfing terms at least was pushed into the shade by a player he hopes to become a Ryder Cup team-mate of next month.

Clarke – something of a follower of fashion himself sometimes – had an incredible six birdies in the first eight holes and nine in the first 14.

Even with two bogeys on his card as well by then the Ulsterman had a chance to equal or even break the major record of 63.

But he was content enough with parring his way through the demanding closing stretch of the lunar landscape on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Especially with Tiger Woods down on three over after 10 holes, though he did grab two birdies after that.

Padraig Harrington made an even bigger recovery, improving from two over after a double bogey at the 15th – his sixth – to finish four under thanks to some birdies on the closing holes.

Paul McGinley is two under after three holes.

Remarkably, Clarke’s birdies on the first four holes were matched by playing partner KJ Choi and the South Korean, third in the Masters in April behind Phil Mickelson and Els, then made it five in a row.

Clarke, the only player to shoot two rounds of 60 in European tour history, was back on level terms with a 15-footer at the short seventh, then repeated that on the next – one of three holes reduced in length because of the prospect of 20mph winds, but still a 468-yard par four.

His first mistake came on the 449-yard ninth. He bunkered his approach, went over the green from there and did well to drop only one stroke in the end, holing a six-footer.

It did not put him off his stride. More birdies came on the 10th and 11th and after slipping up at the next he had another birdie at the 373-yard 14th.

Clarke had made only one halfway cut in six visits to the event, but this layout on the banks of Lake Michigan is different to any other and appeared to be inspiring him. He holed-in-one on the 12th in practice.

Els refused to let the Ryder Cup star get clean away, though. Having missed chances to win the first three majors of this year – the Masters by a shot and the British Open after a play-off with Todd Hamilton – the South African was desperate not to let another slip by.

He also had an opportunity to end Woods’ five-year reign as world number one and the gauntlet was certainly thrown down when he had five birdies in seven holes around the turn to reach six under.

Woods made a bright enough start, pitching to three feet at the 10th, but he was disturbed by a photographer on the next tee and after going through his pre-shot routine again hooked his drive into thick rough.

He could advance the ball only about 100 yards, needed two more shots to reach the green and then three-putted it for a double bogey seven.

Bogeys came on the next two as well, but he then drove the green at the 373-yard 14th and two-putted for another birdie.

He turned in 38, dropped another shot at the first, but then more birdies on the second and fourth.

Woods, Vijay Singh and John Daly not surprisingly carried the biggest gallery of the day with them.

Singh, with an outside chance of becoming world number one himself – he has to win and Woods miss the cut) – impressively moved to four under with four to play, but Daly had an eight on the par four 18th and at seven over was close to last.

That virtually ended his hopes of making America’s Ryder Cup team, but 50-year-old Jay Haas took another step towards becoming the second oldest player in the event’s history – after 51-year-old Ray Floyd in 1993 – with a 68.

Meanwhile, Greg Norman withdrew just before teeing off and was replaced by American Joe Durant. Nick Price, Fred Couples, Steve Elkington and Thomas Bjorn were other injury absentees.

Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo were among later starters, but Ireland's Graeme McDowell, playing his first major in America, came in with a 75.

Lee Westwood – fourth in the British Open – and Paul Casey were two over, but Brian Davis and Phillip Price stood one under.

Clarke has started working with American short-game expert Stan Uttley and after a round containing only 25 putts he said: "He's certainly got me rolling the ball a bit better than I have.

“The course was a bit softer after yesterday’s rain, but I think we’ll still be saying how tough it is by the end of the week. It’s a great start obviously, and I just hope to keep playing the way I am.

“It’s a fantastic course – if I’d shot 77 I’d still be saying that. It’s a great test.”

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