Golf: Hole-in-one Clarke goes clear

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THOUGH America's Ryder Cup players are exhibiting sheer greed, Europe's administrators may have good cause for their ticket pricing policy at the 2001 Ryder Cup at The Belfry.

If a leaking member of the European Cup Committee is to be believed, the entry fee at the match will be pounds 300. While that may conceivably be justified as a season ticket for those able to attend all three practice rounds as well as the three match days, those able to attend for just one day will have to pay the same amount.

Possibly, but only possibly, the cash is required to rebuild the greens at the K Club in time for the first venture of the match to Irish soil in 2005. According to some of the players, whose criticisms are rightly tempered by the fact that they are playing for pounds 1.3m at the Smurfit European Open, the putting surfaces need to be dug up and relaid.

This, however, has not put a brake on Darren Clarke, who followed his 60 on Saturday by taking the putting element out of it altogether yesterday by holing in one at the 205-yard fifth hole.

Clarke's first ace on tour, following four as an amateur, helped the Irishman to a 66 and a six-stroke lead at 17 under par. A fine front-runner, Clarke led by five with a round to play at Hanbury Manor on his way to victory in the English Open in June.

Adding to his list of records he now shares, Clarke matched Montgomerie tour best of 18 under for 36 holes set in Crans-sur-Sierre three years ago. Monty actually took 124 strokes in those two rounds, Clarke here 126. What the 30-year-old would really like today is to become the first Irish winner on home soil since John O'Leary at the Irish Open 17 years ago.

It would also make a nice double with Eddie Irvine having won the German Grand Prix yesterday. "I've got another day's work to do," Clarke said. "I have to go out and play the sort of golf I've played for the last two days. It is difficult to follow a round like yesterday's but I just tried to focus on every shot."

The hole-in-one came at a time when his round had not yet settled down following an early birdie and a bogey. His high, soft six-iron pitched just short of the green and would have stopped inside two feet from the hole. The stroke, as did many Clarke hit yesterday, received an appreciative "good shot" from his Japanese playing partner, Katsuyoshi Tomori.

Lee Westwood got within a stroke of Clarke before dropping three strokes at the 11th and 12th. He finished with a 70 to be 10 under, one behind the second-placed Peter O'Malley. The Australian, who scored a 68, had an eagle at the last from 30 feet to add to his earlier birdie putts from 45 and 20 feet.

Yet, O'Malley is not a fan of the greens here. "The hardest thing about them is knowing what is going to happen when the ball lands," he said. "They are actually better than in previous years. I used to be a greenkeeper myself, I can't believe what the guy here... no, I can't say that."

Montgomerie, who looms large in anyone's rear-view mirror, had a 69 to be nine under and joint fourth but could not comprehend how anyone could hole putts here. "I had 35 putts yesterday and 34 today and you can't win having that many putts," Monty said. "I hit every green. You can't do better than that. I didn't come here to finish second."

With the top prizes here likely to go to those who are already qualified or who are not eligible for the Ryder Cup team, there will be some minor shuffling among those not yet secured of a seat on Concorde. Sergio Garcia is in 12th position but a 73 yesterday slipped the 19-year-old back to three under. Alex Cejka, two places behind Garcia on the standings, is at four under, while Jean Van de Velde (eighth) is having a steady week after all the excitement of the Open at five under.

Andrew Coltart has another good opportunity to move up from 10th on the list after a 71 that left the Scot at seven under. However, he has not managed to capitalise on good third round positions in each of the last two tournaments, closing with a 77 at Carnoustie and a 70 in the Dutch Open which saw him slip down the leaderboard.

Mark James (11th) missed the cut but may have been more concerned about one of the two Germans who did likewise, Bernhard Langer (ninth) and Sven Struver (13th).

James now admits it is unlikely he will qualify in the top-ten. A record of three missed cuts and a best of 39th in six events since finishing second in the PGA at Wentworth is hardly overwhelming evidence that James the player would deserve a wild card. It is therefore almost certain it will be James the captain, as expected, in Boston.

Scores, Digest, page 9