The Open may well be the major championship most suited to Darren Clarke’s game, and Royal Troon one of his more favoured courses on the R&A’s rotation, but the 2011 champion’s ambitions will take a back seat in this Ryder Cup season.
European captain Clarke is just 11 weeks from leading his continent’s Ryder defence as underdogs at Hazeltine in Minnesota. That means there is only one thing consuming the Portrush resident and it is not his golf game, however much the Open means to him.
The 47-year-old’s major victory came in this tournament at Royal St George’s five years ago but it was here at Troon in 1997 that he finished runner-up alongside Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik to Justin Leonard and then tied for 11th on its return in 2004.
“Good memories,” Clarke said yesterday, before admitting that putting aside his captaincy and returning to being a golfer this week was not an option.
“No. I’m just thinking about it [the captaincy] all the time. I’ll go out this week and see how it goes. I’m hitting the ball nicely.
“Trying not to get ahead of my body. I’ve been moving my spine angle forward and I’ve had to move back and collect myself, and that’s why I’ve been struggling a while. Now I’m back on links it’s about keeping my Adam’s apple in position so I can get my ball trajectory going.
“I’ve played well here in the past. Troon is one of the fairer Open courses. Not massive undulations, it’s a proper course.”
Despite Clarke being one of a number of Open champions in his 40s when they have lifted the Claret Jug fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington does not subscribe to the theory that the championship he won in 2007 and 2008 is necessarily a question of age relating to success.
“I think it’s more for the guys that are hardened to links golf,” said Harrington, 44. “There’s certainly other players who are well capable of winning because they’re good players, but there’s some good players who are good enough but don’t know how to play links golf. If they don’t get nice conditions, then they’ll struggle. If we get a nice sunny week with not a huge amount of wind, they’re all well capable of getting around it. It’s only if it’s troublesome weather that the links experience comes into it.”
To that end, he was encouraged by his performance in last week’s Scottish Open, where he finished tied for 21st at six under par after rounds of 70, 69, 72 and a closing 71.
“I played well in difficult conditions. I putted well the first couple of days. I was a bit tentative on the weekend. I hit the ball well.
“I could be mentally stronger. It’s only a mental side of the game, so if I find the right thing, that can click into place for sure. It really is all about the mental game. I’m very happy with my physical game, but mental is always 99 per cent of it.”
For that, as always, Harrington is turning to sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who is at Royal Troon this week.
“I’m very happy with my game at the moment... It’s more about getting my head in the right place than anything else, so the next couple of day it’s about preparing like I’m going to play well, put it like that. I’m not searching for anything. I’m comfortable enough with my game. I just need to show a little bit more strength mentally. A bit more confidence would be great.”
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