Clarke has global ambitions

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The Independent Online

Fifty-five line up in pursuit of the £690,000 first prize, six have the chance to walk away with the Order of Merit title, but all eyes will be focused on only one player. It is the mark of Tiger Woods that the group competing for the mantle of European No 1 would treasure even more the scalp of the world No 1 at the AmExWorld Championship - the European Tour's final event of the season - which starts here today.

Fifty-five line up in pursuit of the £690,000 first prize, six have the chance to walk away with the Order of Merit title, but all eyes will be focused on only one player. It is the mark of Tiger Woods that the group competing for the mantle of European No 1 would treasure even more the scalp of the world No 1 at the AmExWorld Championship - the European Tour's final event of the season - which starts here today.

If one of Darren Clarke, Lee Westwood, Ernie Els, Thomas Bjorn, Michael Campbell or Colin Montgomerie could contrive a way to beat the all-conquering 24-year-old, then not only would they put themselves in the frame for the Order of Merit, they would also deny Woods the title he needs to take his earnings for the season to $10m (£6.9m) - almost twice the figure Jack Nicklaus won in 37 years on the US Tour.

Clarke and Westwood, separated by just over £60,000 at the top, could still capture the Order of Merit even if Woods wins for the 10th time this year. Yet it will taste so much better for Clarke if he can repeat the million-dollar victory he had over Woods at the Andersen Consulting World Match Play in February. And Westwood, who came from behind to beat Woods in May, places more importance on doing that again than he does on ending Montgomerie's seven-year reign of Europe. As for the Scot, he has to win even to have a chance of coming from sixth to first in the money-list race. But, unlike the other two, he has never won an event in which Woods was playing.

Andrew Chandler manages both Clarke and Westwood and in one sentence summed up the way they are approaching the task ahead and how they have approached their careers. "All Lee wants to do is win. All Darren wants to do is spend money," Chandler said.

Clarke's second place in last weekend's Volvo Masters took his European earnings through the £5m barrier, even though he has only won seven times. Westwood is poised to join him this week, yet has already captured 24 titles in his career. Six have come on the European Tour this season and another would be a record. "I'd be delighted to be No 1 but I've never really thought about it too much to be honest," said the 27-year-old. "It really doesn't sit that highly in my priorities. But I'd like to set a record and I'd like to beat Tiger again. That would give me more satisfaction."

Clarke, who played a practice round with Woods yesterday in under three hours, commented: "It would be great to win the Order of Merit, but in terms of world rankings to win the tournament would be bigger. That's not demeaning the Order of Merit in any way, but the long-term goal is to get as high in the rankings as I can." Last week he entered the top 10 for the first time; now he is ninth and by Sunday he could be seventh. Westwood is fifth and Montgomerie sixth.

None of the trio is remotely close to Woods, who could probably take the next year off and still return as No 1. He likes playing and likes winning too much to contemplate that - as he will be out to prove here. Woods has experienced all manner of things at Valderrama. In the 1997 Ryder Cup he won only one of his five games, but took his revenge with victory last year. If Woods repeats it he will not only end Montgomerie's reign, but also end the hopes of Els, Campbell and Bjorn of winning the Order of Merit.

In that event, Clarke and Westwood fight it out between themselves. Westwood cannot catch his stablemate if he is outside the top nine, but his task has been made easier by a dozen "tired" leading Americans withdrawing. Every place he goes higher than ninth, the better Clarke has to play. Should Montgomerie leap out of the pack to win his eighth money-list title in a row, he will doubtless be reminded of what he said 12 months ago. "Unfortunately it makes a mockery of our tour. It takes five tournaments for us to win as much as this one is worth and for a tour over 38 weeks I don't think it should come down to one at the end."

Montgomerie could have been a victim of the system then. This time he could be a beneficiary.

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