Darren Clarke crashes out of Open Championship qualifying tournament

If Darren Clarke is to appear at Royal Birkdale later this month he will have to get there the hard way. The popular Ulsterman crashed out of the 36-hole qualifying tournament on Monday at Sunningdale, where 18 players out of a field of 120 earned their ticket to the Southport links.

It was a miserable experience for Clarke, who will now attempt to win the one spot on offer at this week’s European Open in Kent and if not there then at next week’s Scottish Open at Loch Lomond. Purely on this evidence that will be a big ask for the famed Ryder Cup competitor.

As it will be for Clarke’s Europe team-mates, Paul McGinley and Jose Maria Olazabal. The former’s bad run carried on as his one-under total never threatened a leaderboard headed by England’s Simon Wakefield on seven-under, while Olazabal saw his wretched luck continue.

When you are suffering from the sort of fatigue the Spaniard veteran has been after returning from a seven-month lay-off with rheumatism in the back, the last thing you need is a day that begins at 6.30am and finishes a little before 9pm. Olazabal missed out on the third hole of a play-off as six players went out to decide who would win the last two Birkdale spots. Peter Baker and Simon Dyson were the last men standing, although everyone was applauding an extraordinary effort by Olazabal.

After his early-morning 71, the 42-year-old seemed out of the reckoning but a courageous afternoon round of 65 put him on the brink. Olazabal had to hang around for four hours to see if he had made it and then had to re-don his spikes to take part in the sudden death shootout. Cruel did not begin to describe his eventual exit.

As an indication of the physical handicap he has been playing under is the protracted rest Olazabal is now considering taking. "It's going to take two months at least to see if my body is cured,“ said Olazabal, who revealed that his medical team have taken him off one set of tablets as they try to discover the reason for his fatigue. “I feel like practising, but I just get tired and can't hit balls and play 18 holes in the same day. But at least my lower back is not getting as tight as it did before and that's positive. I have to really look for those signs."

So too, does Clarke. He has already missed the year’s first two majors and will desperate not to sit out another, particularly with time running out to make Nick Faldo’s team in Kentucky in September. Yet all the confidence he gained from collecting the Asian Open in April has seemingly evaporated and once again he faces an uphill struggle to return to the game‘s upper echelons. "That is my worst-ever score here and I'm going fishing in three weeks' time - that's the way it would appear," said Clarke, after rounds of 74 and 70 left him adrift.

It was a miserable day for Clarke, who will now attempt to win the spot on offer at this week’s European Open in Kent and if not there then at next week’s Scottish Open at Loch Lomond. Purely on this evidence that will be a big ask for the famed Ryder Cup competitor.

Clarke has already missed the year’s first two majors and will desperate not to sit out another, particularly with time running out to make Nick Faldo’s team in Kentucky in September. Yet all the confidence he gained from winning the Asian Open in April has seemingly evaporated and once again he faces an uphill struggle to return to the upper echelons of his profession.

"That is my worst-ever score here and I'm going fishing in three weeks' time - that's the way it would appear," said Clarke, after his first-round 74. "This was just a continuation of last week and unfortunately that's just the way it is. I went double bogey, double bogey on the eighth and the ninth from nowhere and didn't make any putts."

Birkdale would certainly be a poorer place without this fine ball-striker. Since losing his wife, Heather, to cancer almost two years ago he has had to rebuild his life and his plight in trying to balance his career with that of bringing up his two young sons has touched many in the game and beyond.

In the wake of an emotional appearance at the 2006 Ryder Cup, where Clarke displayed remarkable courage to play a starring role just six weeks after Heather’s death, he watched his form nosedive. Once ranked as high as fourth in the world, Clarke dropped out of the top 200 with a string of missed cuts. This season has witnessed his re-emergence with his first title in three years hauling him to the brink of the top 100. Yesterday was a major set-back, however.

At least Clarke had his good friend Thomas Bjorn on hand for consolation, although how understanding the Dane would have been after seeing his own Open hopes all but disappear was dubious. Bjorn, who came agonisingly close to winning the Claret Jug at Sandwich in 2003, was forced to withdraw because of a shoulder injury.

He had started with a 68, but after tangling with the heather he laboured to the turn in a nine over 44 and pulled out early on the back nine. "I was millions over," he said. "It's disappointing because unless a miracle happens I'll miss my first Open since 1995. But my shoulder is a bit more important." Bjorn is now a doubt for the European Open at The London Club and may have to bank on finishing as the top non-exempt player at Loch Lomond.

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