Golf: Pills and putts put Clarke on his way

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AS A demonstration that successful golf is usually played without thinking too much about it, Darren Clarke's opening round at the One 2 One British Masters was the perfect case study. Popping as many influenza cure pills as he could get his hands on, Clarke laid some solid foundations to a tournament which should see him lead the order of merit by Sunday night.

In bed early on Wednesday evening, the 30-year-old Ulsterman was keen to get back to it after recording a 67 on the Forest of Arden course. Clarke led by one from Switzerland's Paolo Quirici, who holed in one at the fifth hole, but had opened a more substantial advantage over his money list rivals, Lee Westwood and Colin Montgomerie.

Westwood, who leads Clarke by pounds 5,500 at the top of the European standings but has temporarily gone off the boil, scored a 73 to be six back while Montgomerie, the No 1 for the last five years but presently stuck in third place, shot a 70.

Another incentive for Clarke is the lack (so far) of an invitation to the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth next month, while the same have already been dispatched to Westwood and Montgomerie.

With a strong breeze blowing in the morning and the wetness underfoot making the course play up to its full 7,106 yards, Clarke could not remember the layout presenting as tough a test. Playing the course the wrong way round, Clarke birdied four out of five holes from the 11th.

"I'm not feeling my best," Clarke said, "but it seemed to help my golf. I walked very slowly round the course and I did not swing very hard at the ball which helped my timing."

Since missing the cut in the Open, Clarke has been in a rich vein of form: second, second, fourth, 13th and third. At such times, Clarke realises it is best to leave alone any work on his long game and has spent practice refining his short game.

It was Montgomerie's short game that rescued him yesterday as he continues the battle to regain his old, consistent action. For the first time, he admitted his attempts to improve have had an adverse effect.

"I tried to improve and it didn't work," he said. "Now, I've got to get back to a position I feel comfortable in. This is the first time in my 11-year career that I've found this game quite difficult. I've never thought about my swing on the course before. Now I am thinking all sorts of things and it's hard work." Now he knows how everyone else feels.

Whatever Justin Rose is thinking about life as a pro golfer, his public utterances remain upbeat. In his first round in this country since finishing fourth at the Open, Rose failed to break 80. Although the 18-year-old was one under for the last seven holes, the damage was done by an outward 43.

Instead of the thousands who thronged the 18th at Royal Birkdale when Rose chipped in to end his amateur career, the gallery yesterday was barely in the hundreds. "Any buzz I did have, well, I had a six at the third and a six at the fourth, I was buzzing after that," he said.

Rose imagined he might need a 65 today to avoid missing his sixth successive cut. But he has not yet got down on himself. "There is no point as there is a big week next week," he said. On Tuesday he plays in the first round of the Qualifying School at Chart Hills in Kent, one of the 120 looking for one of the 12 spots in the San Roque finals in November.