Clarke faces toughest of Italian jobs

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The Independent Online

Darren Clarke will be forgiven for feeling like the prosciutto in an Italian sandwich today. The Ulsterman will tee off in the final group of the Scottish Open flanked by the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco. And if yesterday is anything to go by, he will need all of his ball-striking brilliance to conquer the game's tightest fraternity.

It is almost unique in sport that golfers can lose a lead through absolutely no fault of their own. So it proved for Clarke. He was impervious and on any other Saturday would have been peerless. As it was he saw a three-stroke lead turn into a one-shot deficit.

It was Edoardo doing the audacious leapfrogging, as he made Clarke's 67 look decidedly normal compared to his 63. This was some round, compiled in dank, drizzly conditions on a demanding layout playing as long as it ever has. The pacesetters pulled each other along, flying pin-bound approaches into the dartboard-like greens. Never was this more evident than on the imposing 18th. Clarke sent it in to eight feet and Edoardo to four. Two birdies were a fitting finale.

The pair's excellence is written all over the leaderboard. There is a six-shot gap between Clarke, on 14 under, and third place. In that chasing pack happens to be Francesco, the younger sibling. When the amazing Molinari brothers burst on to the circuit a few years ago everyone said they sounded like a circus act. Now last year's World Cup winners are beginning to look suspiciously like a Ryder Cup act. A win would put Edoardo just where Francesco is – on the fringes of Colin Montgomerie's team for Celtic Manor in October.

But the 29-year-old, who only last year was competing on the Challenge Tour, is keeping his ambitions to a minimum. "I don't expect to make the team and I really think I have nothing to lose," he said. "A one-shot lead is nothing but it will be good to have Francesco there and if he holes a few early birdies he could get into the mix. But we are playing against Darren, one of the best players of all time on the European Tour."

Indeed, the very least Clarke should earn today is a berth in next week's Open at St Andrews. There is one spot on offer and seeing as both Molinaris have qualified, Clarke's golden ticket should be a formality. As consolations go it would be right up there, though the 41-year-old knows only a victory will give him a sniff of a sixth Ryder Cup appearance.

Clarke's re-emergence is the latest fillip for British and Irish golf. Consider that for the first time in the history of the world rankings there are more golfers in the top 20 from the UK (seven) than the US (six) and it is easy to see why there is such excitement in the home guard. As if to prove the point, lower down the leaderboard here comes Graeme McDowell. This week has all been about blowing away the cobwebs, not to mention the hangover, for the US Open champion and a 68 yesterday – which left him just outside the top 10 on three-under – was commendable. He will head to Fife with confidence, although he confessed that if he had to have a bet – and as an Ulsterman it is probably compulsory – his money would be on a 21-year-old becoming the youngest Open winner in 117 years.

"Rory [McIlroy] loves St Andrews, having played eight rounds there and broken 70 each time," he said. "If I was going to have a punt, he would be the one. I like Tiger [Woods] around there, but I really do fancy Rory. He is so up for it. I would say he is scarily excited."