Clarke clicks back into top gear

DARREN CLARKE is quietly hopeful yesterday’s victory in the JP McManus Pro-Am at Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Resort may reignite his season and eventually lead to a much coveted return to Ryder Cup action.

Clarke shot a best of the day 68 to finish three-under for the tournament and picked up a cheque for €100,000, three times more than he has earned in any event over the past six months. It has been quite a struggle for the 41 year-old from Dungannon, currently 172nd in the world rankings, having been up to fourth when he won his second World Championship, the NEC, in Akron, Ohio, in 2003. He is 64th in the European Tour Race to Dubai.

“Tournament leader … yeah, it has a nice ring to it,” he admitted having completed his second round at lunchtime. “It’s been a while. I’ve shot four under on a pretty tough day. You’ve been asking all the time, what’s going wrong and I say, well, I’m working hard and doing all the right things and nothing is quite happening.

“So it’s nice to actually come and play okay. I love the atmosphere of the whole thing … the field JP has managed to put together is down to the respect that everybody has for him and the money he raises for charity is brilliant.

“I’ve been working hard but putting poorly but something clicked after Paris last week. I changed a little bit of my set-up and all of a sudden I’m rolling the putts better. That changes everything, changes my outlook to the game knowing that I can hole some putts and make some birdies.

“You’re just fed up when it’s not happening. It’s frustrating. It got very, very frustrating. There is a little bit of ‘why do I bother any longer’, of course there is. When you’re working as hard as I have been and getting nothing out of it, it’s very difficult to keep on doing the same things. I do it because of my desire to succeed, to prove to myself that I can still compete and play. I’ve just go to keep on doing what I’m doing and hopefully I’ll get back to where I should be.”

He dismisses talk of a return to the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in October, pointing out: “I’m nowhere in the reckoning and that’s due to my poor play this year and that’s fine. I’ll try. If I play like I played here at Loch Lomond this week, maybe I’ll get to the Open and I’d love to make it because I love St Andrews.”

Clarke, who deferred his departure for Loch Lomond and the Scottish Open starting there tomorrow to attend last night’s prize-giving ceremony, was glowing in his praise for the manner in which fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell recently captured the US Open Championship.

“I watched every shot and thought Graeme’s attitude was magnificent“, he said. “He was in full control of his emotions, he hit some great shots on that last day … he got a little fortunate at the 14th when his ball went over the green and he took it in his stride. At the next, he hit a fantastic putt that had no right to miss. It couldn’t miss and it did miss and yet the two things didn’t faze him at all.

“I wasn’t surprised that he was able to do it. Sometimes, things go for you and with a quality player like Graeme, he’s obviously got the game to do it. You don’t have a record that he had in collegiate golf in the States and not have it in you. It was brilliant to see another European winner and a guy from home and it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

“The Open? Obviously, G-Mac is a confidence player, he will be moving forward, Lee (Westwood) has been knocking at the door for some time now, Tiger’s record at St Andrews speaks for itself and then you’ve got Rory, he’s going to want to put himself in the same position as well. At the minute, there are three or four players outside Monty’s ideal Ryder Cup team that need to make a move.”

As we chatted, Tiger Woods passed by on his way to Shannon Airport. They shook hands warmly to demonstrate their friendship is as close as ever.

“It’s obviously been a very difficult period in Tiger’s life“, said Clarke. “Competitive golf is what you need to go out and perform with a card in your hand. It’s hard to take an extended break from the game and come back into it. But he’ll be fine.”

Clarke’s 68 contained an eagle at the 7th (drive, seven iron and 20 foot putt), five birdies, a double bogey and a bogey. He had a shot to spare over England’s Luke Donald, whose 69 was joint best of the day with McDowell, Ian Poulter and Heath Slocum. Pádraig Harrington, who ran away with the tournament when it was last staged in 2005, had a 72 to finish four over for the 36 holes.

The Lourdes Invalid Trust team comprised of the Hackett brothers from Nenagh, Bernard (11), Padraig (13) and Ray (15) played remarkable golf through the afternoon to get to 33 under par and claim the top prize. The only holes at which they failed to notch a net birdie or better were the par three 4th and 11th and the 17th. Professional Ian Poulter joined in with four birdies of his own while openly marvelling at the expertise of his amateur partners!

The Nenagh boys prevailed by three shots from the St Josephs Foundation team of professional Heath Slocum, and Claremen Evan (8) and Michael Talty (14) and Eric Murrihy (13).

Gardaí estimated the attendance yesterday at a record 45,000, some 5,000 more than on Monday, and in spite of some heavy rain in mid-morning, the event again proved a resounding success.


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