If Darren Clarke is to fail for a 20th time at the Open Championship he is going to go down smiling. That was the promise of the third-round leader last night as he prepared for what he called "an opportunity".
Two things have impressed most about the 42-year-old this week. Clarke's ball-striking and his attitude. While the former has never been questioned the latter most definitely has been. But after his 69 which gave him a one-stroke advantage Clarke revealed that it was a tip way back from 1997which has inspired him in Kent.
"Ken Brown [the former Ryder Cup player] said to me before my debut in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, 'Don't let your golf game determine your attitude, let your attitude determine your game'," said Clarke. "My attitude has been very good all week and it's shown in the way I'm hitting the ball."
Clarke also credited mind coach Dr Bob Rotella with helping him maintain his patience. "I couldn't have hit the ball any better from tee to green, but on the green it was not the same, to say the least. But overall I hit a lot of good putts that didn't go in," he said. "I haven't been always able to stay patient when that's been the case but after spending time with Dr Bob I have been able to get into that mindframe here."
So Clarke is on the cusp of the major his talent always merited. He has been written off on many occasions and despite his victory this year in Majorca he was ignored by many for the Open, including the bookies who priced him at 200-1. Clarke maintained that he always believed. "Did I ever doubt I would get myself back in this position? No," said Clarke. "Did I know it was going to happen? No. Did I hope it was going to happen? Yes. But I never once thought it couldn't."
Northern Ireland has always kept faith in him, despite the rise of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. Clarke, who was bombarded with McIlroy questions, refused to admit that he had been inspired by McIlroy's eight-shot win at Congressional three weeks ago. "He's half my age, it's a different era, I was delighted for him but I can't say it inspired me," said Clarke. "I'm very excited about the position I'm in. The Open is the biggest and best tournament in the world. I've failed 19 times to try to lift a Claret Jug and tomorrow I have an opportunity. But there's a long way to go."
Clarke's nearest challenger plays in the final grouping for the third time in the last six majors. Dustin Johnson shot an 82 when leading the 2010 US Open and then missed a play-off when penalised on the last hole of the 2010 USPGA. Will those experiences work against the American?
"No, I think the more and more you can put yourself in a situation, the more comfortable you get," said Johnson, whose 68 was the joint-best score of the day. "I'm going to be pretty comfortable out there tomorrow because I know what to expect."
Both Clarke and Johnson admitted they had been fortunate with the weather, as the rain stopped and the wind dropped an hour into their rounds. Stewart Cink, the 2009 Open champion, was one of the morning starters and said: "I've only ever seen one tougher day than this and that was the Saturday of Muirfield in 2002. It is almost indescribable how hard it was to play golf out there."