Golf: Clarke's 60 is the finest in Europe

European Open: Irishman has birdie putt on every green and goes from 89th to the lead in one day
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IF A MAN could ever be described as disappointed with a round of 60, it was here. In front of a home gallery at the K Club, Darren Clarke's brilliant second round in the Smurfit European Open took the Irishman as close as he may ever get to a place in history as the first player to score 59 on the European Tour. At least he does not have to change his car number plate from the present "DC 60".

"Opportunities to break that number don't come along very often," Clarke said. "This was a fantastic opportunity for me to do it and it would have meant an awful lot for me to do it here in Ireland. That's not complaining about my 60. I still played pretty good."

It was far better than that. Clarke, the first man to score 60 for a second time, equalled a number of records, and had a birdie putt on every green. It was simply one of the best rounds of golf ever seen in Europe. The 59 may not have been done on this side of the Atlantic, but there have been three in the US, the latest by David Duval to win the Bob Hope Classic in January.

"I've had some good ball-striking rounds but this was the best," he said. "Today was probably as good as I have ever played. I kept hitting it to six, eight, 10 feet all day long. I don't know the secret. Things just clicked. Everything felt good and I was focusing on every shot. I wasn't thinking what score I was on, I was in my own little world, but there was an enjoyable excitement when I realised that I had a glorious chance to break 60."

Having started at the 10th and played the back nine in five under, Clarke's birdie at the par-five seventh equalled the records of eight in a row and 12 in a round on the European Tour. He then had two holes left to erase a number of players from the record book.

At the eighth, a short par-four, his nine-iron approach checked on the first bounce and left him with a 12-footer. He allowed for a break of four inches on the right-to-left curve but the ball just shaved the right edge of the cup. So one of his playing partners, Ian Woosnam, still shares the record for eight straight birdies with Seve Ballesteros, Tony Johnstone, John Bickerton, Mark O'Meara, Raymond Russell, Marcello Santi and now Clarke. A fine drive at the ninth left Clarke with just a wedge for his second shot at the 434-yard hole. A gust of wind caught the ball and it came up 20 feet shy. Determined not to leave his putt short, he missed it on the low side, and then had a four-footer coming back for par.

"It would have been an easy putt to miss after the disappointment of missing the 59," Clarke said. "Both the approaches at the last two holes were exactly the shots I was trying to hit. I wouldn't change anything."

Clarke joined the list of Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Russell Claydon and Fredrik Lindgren who have had 12 birdies in a round. And this was the ninth 60 in Europe, his own previous effort being one of nine-under, high above Monte Carlo at Mont Agel. But this was only the third 60 to represent a score of 12 under par, one of the others being at altitude at Crans- sur-Sierre and only Bernhard Langer's at Berliner in 1997 comes close in terms of degree of difficulty. Even so, Clarke had to negotiate a course over 300 yards longer than the German.

Clarke broke the existing course record at the Arnold Palmer-designed venue for the 2005 Ryder Cup, previously held by Colin Montgomerie, Per- Ulrik Johansson and Fredrik Jacobson, by a staggering four strokes. The round must rank alongside the 62s scored by Langer at Valderrama in 1994, by the German again at El Saler in 1984 and by Montgomerie at Druids Glen two years ago. The last two rounds were on the final day for victory.

"Not to take anything away from my other 60, but this was better," Clarke added. "This is a demanding course. There is no real let-up and a lot of potential disaster holes."

It was, however, playing as easily as it ever will. In contrast to Carnoustie, the fairways are probably a touch too generous and the rough not punishing enough. Woosnam had a run of six birdies in seven holes but also suffered a double and a triple bogey in his 72.

Clarke started the day at one over, in danger of missing the cut. Having missed a number of short putts on the bumpy greens on Friday, he switched putters and worked on the practice green for an hour and a half that evening. He also had a word with the Belgian sport psychologist, Joss Vantisphout, who has been helping him recently and then holed from 30 feet at his first, the 10th.

But from then, none of his birdie putts came from longer than eight feet. He missed for eagle from 10 feet at the 18th and two-putted from 15 feet or inside for five of his pars. The most worried man at the end of it all was his caddie, Billy Foster. "The last time he scored 60, he sacked his caddie," Foster explained.

Having started the day in joint 89th place, Clarke ended up leading by two shots from Japan's Katsuyoshi Tomori with Lee Westwood, after a 67, and David Gilford a further stroke behind. Open champion Paul Lawrie added a 71 to his opening 67, as did Colin Montgomerie to leave the Scots at six under, while Jean Van de Velde had the same score to be three under and safely make cut.