Golf: The day Clarke came of age

the Irish player rewarded for wishing and waiting
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Down the 14th fairway yesterday Colin Montgomerie offered his junior partner a piece of worldly wisdom. "Standard shot, Darr," said the best player in the world never to have won a major to his friend, the Ryder Cup rookie Darren Clarke. Montgomerie failed to add that it also happened to be the sort of shot that could make a serious matchplay career - or perhaps break it.

Clarke, the huge beamed and hugely beaming Irishman, responded by pushing his iron shot sweetly on to the elevated green some 18 inches from the hole. In that moment it was possible to tell that everything was going to be all right for Europe and for Clarke.

The United States pair of Fred Couples and Davis Love III conceded Clarke's birdie putt, the fourball match was all square once more and the young man was a player transformed. The big fellow from Dungannon and the these days not so big fellow from Glasgow went on to take the lead for the first time at the 17th when Montgomerie produced a breathtaking birdie from nowhere, and held it to win by one hole when Clarke came up with a scintilating iron shot at the last. It was a corruscating match, perfectly typical of the tournament and the round had turned for Darren Clarke. He had been kept waiting throughout the first day and when eventually he was named in the second set of fourballs the routine overnight storm delayed his appearance. He emerged looking desperately anxious and much more than his 29 years.

His round, wide face was screwed up with concentration so that he looked like a bulldog. Unfortunately, he played like one too as he hit his way through the green on each of the first two holes. Monty was in one of his chipper moods at this point; when the US went ahead at hole four he replied with a birdie three to equalise matters again at the fifth. But Clarke still refused to give him substantial assistance when it mattered and at the eighth Couples can hardly have helped the Celts' morale when he chipped in with a sand-wedge from 78 yards.

The US were one up again; Monty now wore a look of thunder. Clarke still looked seriously bewildered. "No cameras please," grunted Monty, and as his playing mate lit up another cigarette you wondered if he might add for no particular reason "and no fags either". Still, given the respective positions of the balls at the 11th it could have been three. But Love and Couples made minor hashes of their approches. Clarke, from being in the rough at last fired in firmly for a birdie. The US were back to one up; for the first time there was relief for the Irishman.

A third European now incrassingly entered the proceedings. Jumping on and off his buggy like an old-time bus conductor and with twice as many hand signals Seve Ballesteros insistently offered advice on lie and club choice to both his men.

After Clarke's great deeds at the 14th it came to the difficult 17th. Seve was there. "It's one of those holes where there's no right way or wrong way," said Montgomerie immediately afterwards. "Seve's there telling us how to play and what with but it's how you deal with it on the day with that hole." It was good-natured enough in the aftermath of a pulsating late victory but the frustration was obvious.

Clarke was the recipient of equally frequent advice but now he was calm and seared his way serenely through the bunkers at the 18th whether it was with or without his captain's guidance. It was the culmination of a wondrous day for him. The 14th hole where it all came good is called The Stone. Clarke is both a brick and a rock.