Clarke's passion play enchants a nation

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There will not be a dry eye in the Carton House if Darren Clarke becomes the first Irishman in 24 years to win his home open here today. In fact, there will be nothing dry whatsoever. Yesterday's deluge saw to that but not even the biblical downpour could dampen the feeling of anticipation as the Ulsterman moved two shots clear in the Irish Open with 10 holes of the final round remaining.

While the Blarney Army would salute Clarke's success as the perfect capping to what they have termed "Ireland's Weekend" after Munster's rugby triumph, in truth all in golf would claim such an emotional eventuality for their own hearts.

For Clarke's story is a tearjerker that transcends mere patriotism - and, for that matter, mere golf. With his wife Heather waging a torrid battle with cancer, the 37-year-old has quite understandably looked a shell of his former self this last year.

There have been times, even last Friday, when he could not be bothered with the irrelevance of it all, but somehow, and somewhere, he has rediscovered the passion to compete again.

Perhaps, his sporting instinct was reawakened in the conditions that must have reminded him of his boyhood days in Portrush.

Golf never was a fair-weather sport for the lad from Dungannon, where even the sun wears a rainhat. "I knew this was going to be a grinding day," he said yesterday, after the hooter called them off with the fairways starting to resemble the Liffey. "It's a case of last-man standing wins the title. Like a boxing match, whoever rolls with the punches best will take the honours."

As Clarke looked around last night there were plenty of rivals already horizontal, none more prostrate than Ian Poulter, who covered the 10 holes he managed to play in eight-over par. It was that sort of morning, as grips slipped, balls flew away on gusts and shots disappeared like confetti on the wind.

And that is what made Clarke's charge through his eight holes all the more remarkable, as two birdies and six pars took him to six-under, leapfrogging the overnight leaders Thomas Bjorn, Anthony Wall and Paul Casey.

Of those, the last-named fared the best, dropping only one to stand at four under and he is a live threat, especially as Clarke's first shot at 9.15am today will be from the thick rough he located off the ninth tee. But in this form, in this climate, with this support behind him, Clarke still seems a stick-on.

The officials were doubly determined to achieve a 72-hole finish. There was a chance - and there still is, if the rainclouds belligerently defy the brightening forecasts - that the fourth round would have been scrapped and a three-man, one-hole play-off would have been staged between the third-round pacesetters.

But with their man at the top, there would have been the first Irish riot ever conducted in waterproofs if the powers-that-be-not-that-daft had gone down that path, although Clarke, himself, had feared they were going to. "They have to do what is best for the tournament," he said.

This was gallantly magnanimous, especially after what had happened to him on Saturday evening. Claiming he had one eye on the Heineken Cup final that was being shown live on the big screen in the tented village adjacent to the 18th green, Clarke fluffed a one-foot putt for yes, a share of the lead.

"Of course I would be disappointed if that comes back to haunt me," he said. "But hey, I didn't mean to miss it."

Surely fate will not be cruel enough to demand Clarke misses out on a sudden-death shoot-out in these circumstances. After all, there cannot be any slings and arrows left to throw at the poor man.