Clarke's switch to 'autopilot' pays dividends

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Darren Clarke played under clouds yesterday, literally for much of his round, metaphorically for all of it and more. He cannot concentrate, is having trouble sleeping and is, by his own admission, only "close to playing OK". Yet the 37-year-old Ulsterman ­ who teed off at 8.10am, before the sun got a chance to burn away the billow ­ started his Barclays Scottish Open in the same style he finished it last year, with a five-under-par 66 to leave him one shot off the pace.

"I'm just not quite there, making a few silly mistakes," he said, understandably preoccupied with the ongoing battle of his wife, Heather, with breast cancer.

The only men who had bettered his score when play ended in clear summer air were Scotland's David Drysdale and Sweden's Johan Edfors, who both completed 65s late in the day when the living was easier. Another strong finish in perfect conditions came from England's Miles Tunnicliff, who scored 66 to join Clarke for a share of third.

Edfors, 30, who won the British Masters in May, birdied four of his first five holes, and the 18th, to take him to the top of the leader board. Drysdale, here by invitation and railing against the supposed sound of the last post for Scottish golf, joined him after a bogey-free round.

There is one place up for grabs in next week's Open for the highest-placed non-exempt player here but Drysdale is not looking too far ahead. "It's funny how nervous I get when I'm playing in Scotland," he said. " It's knee-knocking stuff. I don't even like eating. I had poached eggs this morning but I struggled to keep them down. But for some reason I do tend to play well in that state."

Twelve months ago, Clarke's final round was good enough for a share of second, alongside the Netherlands' Maarten Lafeber and behind South Africa's Tim Clark, who scored 69 yesterday. Yesterday, Clarke said his mental state seems to be affecting him especially on the final day, as at The K Club last weekend, when he was in contention at the European Open but fell away.

"I haven't really got any concentration. I'm on autopilot and then come Sunday maybe I'll try that little bit harder, and maybe because I'm trying to force it a little bit harder, I'm just not able to." Last Sunday was a case in point, he added, and he then hadonly 25 minutes sleep because he was "so annoyed" with himself.

He was sufficiently refreshed ­ or detached ­ yesterday to start superbly, hitting a seven-iron to within six feet on the 455-yard 10th to set up a birdie on his opening hole. He then birdied the par-five 13th with a three-wood approach and two putts, and though he made bogey on 15th ­ his only flaw of the day ­ he kicked off the outward nine with a hat-trick of birdies. He added a sixth of the day at the par-three fifth, setting it up with a six-iron to six feet.

Clarke's partners on the bonnie banks were Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie, who enjoyed and endured contrasting rounds. The Spaniard hit a 67, while the Scot could muster nothing better than a one-over 72.

The highest-ranked player here is Retief Goosen, the world No 4, who had a 70, the same as his compatriot Ernie Els and playing partner Ian Poulter, but one shot behind the third member of his trio, Gary Clark, a qualifying school graduate from London. Clark only secured his place at the eleventh hour after the withdrawal of Fred Couples with a back problem that threatens his participation at next week's Open at Royal Liverpool.

* Michelle Wie's fifth appearance on the US Tour got off to a disappointing start last night when she struggled to a six-over-par 77 at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois. The 16-year-old will qualify for next week's Open if she finishes in the top 10 and is the leading non-exempt player come Sunday's final round.