Golf: Clarke finds true harmony

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The Independent Online
OVER THE winter, Darren Clarke barely touched a golf club for nine weeks. He oversaw the opening of a restaurant back home in Northern Ireland and spent time with his wife, Heather, and baby son, Tyrone. While he will have similar breaks in the future, he will not give up on hitting balls. "I won't do that again," he said. "We all make mistakes."

Clarke ended last season in winning style. Victory at the Volvo Masters took him to second in the order of merit behind Colin Montgomerie. By the time he failed to qualify for the last two rounds of the US Masters in April, it was his fourth missed cut in six events. Rhythm, timing, patience, all the intangibles gone, just like that. "I wasn't very good company, I'd imagine," Clarke said. "It was a tough time." Did he stay positive? "As much as I could be. Fortunately, I have a solid foundation - a lot of people around me were all very positive with me."

The foundations of his victory in the English Open on Sunday, the fifth of his career, start with Heather. Then there is his manager, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, and his new coach, Butch Harmon, whose main client is a certain Tiger Woods. Harmon came on board when Clarke decided Pete Cowen, who has worked with other members of Chandler's stable, was too technical. Lee Westwood has also decided that he should seek other opinions, such as Harmon, David Leadbetter and Bob Torrance.

Clarke flew out to Las Vegas, where Harmon has his base, prior to his defence at the Benson and Hedges International. Colin Montgomerie won there and at the Volvo PGA, an event Clarke led at the half-way stage. The 30-year-old did not want a repeat of his blow up at Wentworth and not even a last round 65 from John Bickerton could deprive Clarke of winning at Hanbury Manor.

Harmon, watching at home, phoned Clarke after each round. "I told him he is the worst wake up call I've ever had," Harmon said. "The European golf comes on here at 6am and I have to look at his ugly mug."

After the third round, Harmon had an important message to convey. "Over the front nine he started to get a bit quick and that's why everything was going to the right. I told him to be smoother through the take-away and the shoulder turn. Darren is a great guy. I am very happy the things we have worked on have been of help."

Clarke ended the third round with five birdies, just as he had done the day before. Harmon was also speaking to his other client each day and mentioned his new recruit's feat. "Tiger didn't believe it," said Harmon. Much the same could be said of Woods's short game as he won his second tournament in a row, the Memorial Tournament at Jack Nicklaus's Muirfield Village. The former world No 1 could not be in better shape going into the US Open, and Clarke is happier, too.

The next big date on the calendar takes place at Pinehurst a week on Thursday. "A few weeks ago I wasn't looking forward to the US Open," Clarke said. "Now my form has clicked, I'm striking the ball a lot better. I am hitting a lot of fairways and I'm looking forward to getting back into it."

Clarke is up to ninth in the order of merit and third in the Ryder Cup standings, now assured of his second appearance in the match later this year. Montgomerie finished joint fifth at Hanbury and the lack of a final round charge was the result of too many putts staying disobediently above ground.

For once, Montgomerie was not concerned, the week overall being just what he wanted prior to departing for America on Saturday. "I am very happy with me right now," he said. "It has been a hard few weeks but I have five days off with the family and then go to the States."

Prize money for the Open Championship has been raised by a further 10 per cent. The total purse will reach pounds 2m for the first time, while the winner will receive pounds 350,000. Tom Watson's prize when he triumphed at Carnoustie's last staging of the event in 1975 was pounds 7,500.

"The increase has been made possible because of the worldwide interest in the championship returning to Carnoustie and the corresponding increase in the anticipated income," the Royal and Ancient secretary, Sir Michael Bonallack, said. "At the same time the cost of reinstating the infrastructure to the course and surroundings after a break of 25 years has not been as high as originally estimated."