As one of the finest ball-strikers in the game, the timing of Darren Clarke has never been in doubt. And after yesterday's emphatic win at the Dutch Open it will go on being unquestioned for some time. Almost certainly by a Mr Faldo.
The Europe Ryder Cup captain could not have failed to be impressed by the Ulsterman's return to the winner's enclosure, just one week before he is due to announce his two wild cards for the match in Kentucky next month. While it is still possible for Clarke to move into the automatic qualifying positions with victory at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles this week, he has probably earned his place anyway. A four-stroke victory over the fast-finishing Paul McGinley made sure of that. What would have made Faldo sit up and take notice, more than the final-round 66 for a 16-under total, was the manner in which Clarke, who turned 40 last week, bounced back after letting slip an overnight three-stroke advantage. In fact, it took his playing partner, Henrik Stenson, just three holes to grab the lead for himself as he birdied those opening holes and Clarke bogeyed the second. But showing the battling qualities that long ago established Clarke as a Ryder Cup national, he began reeling off the birdies himself and by the turn he was four shots to the good. The rest were left to battle it out for runner-up and McGinley, Clarke's neighbour and close friend, came through majestically with a best-of-the-week 64.
Clarke was, understandably, delighted with his second win of the season and not only because of what it might mean for his Ryder Cup chances. The £220,000 first prize will also hoist him back into the all-important world's top 50, which brings qualification for next year's majors tantalisingly into view. It has been a torrid road back towards the elite for Clarke after losing his wife, Heather, to cancer two years ago. His two young sons were in Zandvoort to watch him win and his relief was obvious.
"It's nice to win knowing that I had to play well and then actually doing it," said Clarke. "I had two weeks to try to impress Nick and the first is out of the way and I seem to have done that. I don't know if I have done enough, but I'm going to Gleneagles in better shape and hopefully he will take notice."
He surely will and it is bad news for Colin Montgomerie all round. It always was a risk for the Scot to sit out this tournament and wait for the Johnnie Walker – a tournament that he actually hosts – but he could not have figured it would have backfired so spectacularly. Clarke has certainly moved above him in the pecking order, and seeing as Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and also McGinley may also all be relying on picks, that leaves Monty in a hapless position. It is his own fault as he should have played in the Netherlands.
Faldo will doubtless agree. He called for his prospective players to prove themselves and he cannot be anything but admiring of the attitude of the boys who did turn up. Justin Rose had hoped to seal his berth and travel back to the States to play in the £5m FedEx Cup series. But now, after a 34th placing left his automatic top-10 standing still in doubt, he has decided to travel to Perthshire. "Well it's only money and you can't take it with you," said Rose, who remains in eighth, one ahead of Soren Hansen who leapfrogged England's Oliver Wilson into ninth. "I came to do a job and I didn't do it this week, so I'll do it next week. My missus will be upset with me, though. I told her I'd play well and see her tomorrow."