Clarke forgets Cup final trip on route 66

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The Independent Online

The Ulsterman shot a six-under 66 yesterday to share the lead with Michael Campbell and Peter Hanson and in doing so stunned himself more than anyone. Clarke confessed that he had played so wretchedly in Wednesday's pro-am that he had considered withdrawing from Britain's first big event of the season. "It would have been unprofessional," he said. It would have been plain daft.

For Clarke has the talent that can allow him to step over obstacles that to lesser players would be on the Eiger-scale of insurmountable. Firstly, there is the little fact he hates the course, his best score before yesterday being a 68. "The only fond memories I have here is the Ryder Cup," he said.

Secondly, but, of course, of primary relevance, is the torrid battle with cancer his wife is experiencing. The necessity to see Heather's medical team forced Clarke to return home after a fine 68 in the first round of the Houston Open three weeks ago and such have been the personal demands that he has managed to play just one friendly round in the intervening period.

At least Clarke recognises a shift in perspective he quite likes. "When my mind is preoccupied with other things, it does seem to benefit my golf at times," he said.

Clarke's new-found ability to shrug off the golfing disasters was highlighted on his very first hole, the 10th. On seeing his 95-yard sand-wedge spinning back off the green and then his five-foot putt for par slip by, the old Clarke might have flown into a rage before tail-spinning off the leader board. The new one simply kept his feet on the ground, before embarking on a rapid ascent milestoned by five birdies and an eagle. "I could still throw in an 80 tomorrow," he laughed.

In the unlikely event he does there is a fine supporting cast standing by. Sweden's Hanson might be something unknown but as the reigning US Open champion, Campbell, is anything but, as are and Paul Casey and Ian Poulter on five under and four under respectively. Both of these young Englishmen need to accelerate in their pursuit of a Ryder Cup place and at the very least will be out to impress the European captain, Ian Woosnam.

The good news is that the 48-year-old should be around for the weekend after a 69 made all the more valiant by the twinge in his back that threatened to end his tournament prematurely. In fact, Woosnam, almost walked off after the first hole. "It was only the pills that kept me going," he said.