Golf: Clarke begins assault on Ryder Cup mountain: Young Irishman sets his sights high at Alpine location while Faldo's experiment with unorthodox grip meets with little success

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The Independent Online
HOWARD CLARK, the gritty Yorkshireman, has been there, done it and has the scars to prove it. Darren Clarke, the genial Irishman, would like the chance to fill Clark's shoes. The Ryder Cup match between Europe and the United States in Rochester, New York, does not take place for another 12 months but the countdown starts here and some players have been tapping their calculators.

'I reckon,' Clarke said, 'that pounds 340,000 should do the trick.' The trick is to finish in the top 10 in the money list by this time next year, thereby automatically qualifying for selection and Clarke thinks the aforementioned sum would be sufficient. Yesterday the 26-year-old from Dungannon went some way towards opening his account with a 66 in the first round of the European Masters, a stroke behind the Scots Adam Hunter and Gordon Brand Jnr and two behind Eduardo Romero.

Qualification is based on a pound per point and there are 668,000 points available here with the winner receiving pounds 111,290. Clark is also at six under par, as is Joakim Haeggman, and both have experience of the Ryder Cup. Clark's last appearance was in the tied match at The Belfry in 1989 when he was demolished 8 and 7 by Tom Kite in the singles on the final day.

'The Ryder Cup can leave scars and that was one of them,' Clark said. Including the major championships in America, there will be 42 tournaments between now and the match that count towards selection. 'I don't plan to play in more than about 24,' Clark said. 'I don't want to play in all of them and scrape in. If I'm in the team I want to be on good form.'

Clark, who was 40 last week, is in good form here and has generally been in good form throughout the season, although he did have a spot of bother at the Jersey Open following an altercation with a spectator. Clark has 12 European Tour victories, his last in 1988, and this year he has been a runner-up on three occasions. He is 11th in the Volvo Order of Merit with pounds 193,000.

Clark, despite gaining disconcerting height with his three-wood off the tee ('it's like using a wedge,' he told his caddie on the 18th), had six birdies, as did Big Darren, and Romero had nine. Usually the only mountain the players have to climb here is in getting to the course. When Barry Lane won last year he was 18 under par and the half-way cut was made at three under. The par is 72 but the course plays more like 68. At altitude, 5,000ft up the Alps, the ball travels further and some par fours, against a breathtaking backdrop, are driveable.

Despite the first round being held up for an hour and a half by heavy rain, Crans was still playing short enough for Wayne Westner, another at six under, to hit driver, wedge at eight of the par fours. Westner, though, is an acknowledged big hitter. Hunter is not.

Nobody was more surprised at his 65 than Hunter himself. 'I've been playing terrible,' he said. This is no exaggeration. In his last 14 events he has missed the cut 10 times. 'I've had a really torrid time,' Hunter, a 30-year-old Glaswegian, said. 'When you miss cut after cut you get depressed and it's a really vicious circle.' His round equalled his previous lowest score which he made en route to finishing eighth in the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth. Since then he has hardly won enough money to buy a Swiss army penknife.

So what has prompted this sudden rise? Yes, you've guessed it. Hunter has had an audience with the guru himself, the ubiquitous David Leadbetter, who changed his swing and his putting stroke.

Nick Faldo, who used to be Leadbetter's most celebrated pupil until the emergence of Nick Price, is five strokes off the lead following a 69 and he too experimented on the greens. Faldo switched to an unorthodox grip of left hand below right without conspicuous success. He took three putts on the first hole which represented a prompt return to normal service.

CANON EUROPEAN MASTERS (Crans-sur-Sierre, Swit): Leading first-round scores (GB or Irl unless stated): 64 E Romero (Arg). 65 A Hunter, G Brand Jnr. 66 W Westner (SA), J Haeggman (Swe), H Clark, D Clarke. 67 *F Valera (Sp), B Lane, A Bossert (Swit), P Walton, R Drummond, D Cooper, S Torrance. 68 D Curry, S Ames (Tri), R Allenby (Aus), J Van de Velde (Fr), M Scarpa (It), R Goosen (SA), F Lindgren (Swe), J Bland (SA), S Lyle, V Fernandez (Arg). 69 S Struver (Ger), A Binaghi (It), S Bottomley, M Zerman (It), S Rey (Swit), S McAllister, S Richardson, N Faldo, C Moody, D Gilford, J Spence, B Langer (Ger), A Forsbrand (Swe), R Freeman (US), S Luna (Sp), M Gates, S Tinning (Den), R Chapman, C Rocca (It), A Cejka (Ger), M A Martin (Sp), G Levenson (SA), M A Jimenez (Sp), A Sherborne, P-U Johansson (Swe), R Berhorst (Ger), M Pinero (Sp), S Grappasonni (It), M Farry (Fr). *denotes amateur