Clarke dreaming of ticket to Open

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The Independent Online

It's been too long since Darren Clarke has been atop of a big-time leaderboard, but there the big Ulsterman is, looking as imposing as he always did after a first-round 65. From announcing he was considering walking away last month, Clarke has marched right back in again.

His reappearance in the headlines could be so well-timed. The hero of many Ryder Cups gone by is not qualified for next week's Open at St Andrews. There is one exemption on offer here at the Scottish Open, as long as the recipient is in the top five. Clarke said it was too early to think about that yet, but evidently the thought has crossed his mind.

"I'd love to be there," he said and in this form there is no doubt Fife would love to have him.

Six birdies, no bogeys and more pertinently in his eyes "a few holed putts" handed Clarke the advantage. He beat a field containing 11 of the world's top 15 in Limerick and although the JP McManus Pro-Am is little more than an exhibition it clearly gave him what he had been missing.

"I'm a confidence player and now I have some," he said. "I've been playing well enough, just haven't been making anything on the greens. I was getting frustrated but still want to win as much as I ever did."

One behind Clarke are Damien McGrane, Edoardo Molinari and Graeme Storm. But, with respect to that trio, there are two names one behind doing most to raise the anticipation for the weekend.

At 18 years of age, Ryo Ishikawa is an exceptional talent, as seven titles on his home tour and a 58 this season confirm. The huge Japanese media contingent here highlight what a superstar he is in Asia and this performance is merely the latest notice that a global icon he will soon be.

John Daly, of course, will never be an icon. But he does transcend golf. The Wild Thing turned Slim Thing - after a lapband has seen him drop from 22st to around 13 st in 18 months – has had one top 10 finish in the last five years. But Daly does still have an appetite and blessedly it's for golf and competition rather than Jack Daniels and mayhem.

"That first eight holes was the best ball-striking I have had forever," he said after his 67. "I haven't felt that good in a long while. This is the fifth week in a row I've actually been healthy, where I can work on my game and get some confidence."

In truth, it is not just his back which has been hurting. His bank balance has also had better, straighter days.He owes about $1m to the American taxman, which, without a club or ball sponsor is difficult to pay off.

His financial troubles all stem from a few years ago which saw him arrested for being drunk and banned from the PGA Tour as a result of "conduct unbecoming".

"I lost $6m to $7m at the end of 2007 with [sponsors] Taylormade, Lumber 84 and Hooters and everything and, come January, when I usually pay my taxes, there wasn't anything there," he said.

"I'm not broke but I'll just wait and get the settlement with the IRS done and move on."

Although his bright green outfit yesterday did not suggest it, Daly is trying to quieten down. And with some success. He has stopped drinking – "the lap band won't let me guzzle beer, so I don't bother" – and although he still smokes and drains as many of his beloved diet cokes as possible he has stopped his inexorable drive towards self-destruction.

Together with his girlfriend of three years, Anna Cladakis, Daly is determined to rebuild his life and celebrate what he has as well as what he did.

"You know I'm only 44 and I still feel there's a lot of golf left," he said. "But it doesn't matter what happens. It's not a Tiger Woods career by any means, but it is two majors and a few wins and it's in the top 20 of any player that's ever played the game.

"Next week I'm going back to St Andrews, my favourite course where I won my Open in 95. Does that inspire me? Of course. Despite everything that's gone in my life I still love to compete. That has never left me."