Clarke driven by new resolve

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The Independent Online

All it took, ultimately, for Ernie Els to win the Order of Merit was for the South African to say he was going to play in the Volvo Masters here. But as soon as the words were out of his mouth, it became unnecessary for him even to tee up at Valderrama this morning.

Should Els have played here, even receiving the last place money in this season-ending, no-cut event would have made it impossible for Darren Clarke to overtake him by winning the Madrid Open and here. When Els said he would play here, Clarke had to concede the Order of Merit race. The Irishman then pulled out of the Madrid event, leaving it safe for Els not to play at Valderrama.

Clarke, assured of second place on the Order of Merit, needed last week off because his season will end with a dizzying round-the-globe itinerary. He does not even know where he will be next week. Should he remain in the top-30 money winners in the States after this week's event over there - he is 26th - he will go to the US Tour Championship in Houston. If not, he will play in the Seve Trophy in Valencia.

Then he is off to Asia for some company days, followed by Sun City in South Africa, then back to Hong Kong after which he will play in Tiger Woods' tournament in California.

His keenness to play in Houston next week is simply explained. "There are three tournaments in the world I have not yet played in," Clarke said. "One is the Tour Championship in the States, another is the Mercedes Championship and the last is the Grand Slam."

The last two both take place in Hawaii, but whereas Clarke has qualified for the Mercedes by winning the NEC World Invitational and will start his season there next January, getting into the Grand Slam means winning a major first.

"I've made a lot of improvements this year, but my major performances this year have been very average," Clarke admitted. "That's been the most disappointing part of the lot."

Having committed to working with Butch Harmon on his swing and on calming his occasionally fiery temperament, he is now working unceasingly on his fitness with no less than two personal trainers. A full gym's worth of equipment will be arriving shortly at home and, to make room, he has given to charity over 100 pairs of trousers and 200 shirts.

Colin Montgomerie, who returned to form by winning the Macau Open, must win here to continue his run of European victories in successive years dating back to 1993 and avoid falling out of the top 10 on the Order of Merit for the first time since 1990. Monty is not joined by his co-winner from last year - the play-off was abandoned because of darkness - because Bernhard Langer was not in the top 60 on the Order of Merit. "We changed the rule so it was just the top 60," Montgomerie said, "and I believe Bernhard was in the meeting where we voted on it, so it's unfortunate he has not qualified."