Darren Clarke, one of the heavyweights of the European Tour in terms of performance if not physique, has run into a crisis. Despite losing so much weight on a crash diet, the Irishman has retained his power and is still recognised as one of the big hitters in professional golf. His putting, however, has gone, or is going, to pot.
Yesterday he shot 74 in the third round of the Smurfit European Open here which put him, at six over par, hopelessly adrift of the leaders, his stablemate Lee Westwood, the newly crowned US Open champion Retief Goosen and the Spaniard Jose Manuel Lara.
Clarke has lost so much weight he has had to buy a new wardrobe, sending a pantechnicon of shirts, trousers, jackets and sweaters to Oxfam, although it is debatable as to how many customers of the charity gift shop would fit the bill for a 41-inch waist. Yesterday Clarke's problems on the greens were compounded by a lack of etiquette, quite unintentional, from Rolf Muntz, the former Amateur champion from the Netherlands.
Clarke, currently fifth in the Volvo Order of Merit, was already labouring beneath a big, black cloud in this inclement tournament in County Kildare when things went from bad to worse. He began the event experimenting with what is described as a belly putter, a compromise model between the orthodox version and the elongated broomhandle club generally favoured by players who have suffered various forms of nightmare whilst standing over five-footers.
The middle-range version is so called because the handle rests against the player's stomach. Clarke, whose gut has considerably receded in the course of his weight loss, did not have much success with his new putter over the first two rounds. He tried gripping it lower down the shaft and at one point resorted to stroking the ball in a cack-handed fashion.
Yesterday he re-employed a traditional putter but that did not seem to make much difference either. On the ninth, he three putted from about 15 feet and instead picking up a birdie, he walked off the green with a bogey five, going to the turn in 37.
And then the heavens opened. Clarke was standing over a five-foot putt for par on the 10th when his concentration was shattered by the appearance of a ball rolling across the green. Clarke was forced to go through his routine again and when he finally hit the ball, he missed the hole to card a bogey six. Amused he was not.
The 10th, called Stoat's Lair, is a par-five of 551 yards with a large lake to the left of the green. Playing directly behind Clarke, Muntz had hit a three-wood from about 260 yards but he could not see the flag and he had no idea where his ball came to rest. In fact, he thought he had hit it into the water and when he arrived on the green, he was at once delighted and appalled. His ball was 10 feet from the flag but he also realised that it must have arrived there while Clarke was on the green. After making the putt for an eagle three, Muntz caught up with Clarke on the 11th hole to offer a profuse apology. It was not accepted. "It was one of those things that happens on a golf course that shouldn't happen,'' Clarke said.
Asked what he had said to the Dutchman, Clarke replied: "That is between players.'' At the time torrential rain was falling and stewards, sheltering beneath umbrellas, were unaware of the situation.
The eagle apart, it was not Muntz's day. When he returned to his hotel, he discovered that his room had been burgled.
The 18th here is not dissimilar to the closing hole at The Belfry. A par-five of 578 yards, it is a severe dogleg to the left where water encroaches all the way and the destination is an island green. The ambitious are looking to get on in two for a surefire birdie but the risks are high. Peter Hedblom was on the leaderboard after a birdie two at the 17th but took 11 at the last where he splashed into the water not once, but three times. It completely distorted his round and instead of finishing below par, he stood at four over for the tournament with a 77.
No such problems for Hedblom's fellow Swede, Niclas Fasth, who was six under par on the four par-fives over the first 36 holes. It won him, from the Dublin jewellers Appleby, a pair of earrings worth €3,000. If Fasth can get to 14 under par after the final round today, he will win a diamond worth €120,000.
Meanwhile, the diamond geezers at the top of the leaderboard were Goosen, who was treading water at nine under, Westwood and Lara. Westwood rode a roller-coaster, taking a double-bogey six at the ninth followed by an eagle three at the 10th, and it was a similar story at the 15th (birdie three) and 16th (bogey five). Lara, from Valencia, had a brilliant back nine of 32 in his 67 and at eight under he is one stroke behind Goosen and one in front of Westwood.