Distractions fail to halt Clarke's drive

Irish Open: Local favourite in hunt as Casey leads way

Such is the well of innate ability bubbling deep within Darren Clarke's hulking frame that while it may be on the Blarney side of far-fetched to suggest he could play great golf in his sleep, it is certainly fair to assume he could do it in a trance.

Sadly, he has been proving this point over the last year and the Ulsterman with so much more occupying the mind was at it again at the Irish Open yesterday, when his 67 took him to within one of the lead held by Paul Casey, Anthony Wall and Thomas Bjorn.

On Friday he had told us: "I can't be bothered." Yesterday it was: "I was more interested in watching the rugby on the big screen in the tented village when I missed that one-footer on the last."

If it had come from any other professional, their backsides would have been spanked all the way to Tipperary. For Clarke there has been a simple hand around the shoulder.

The personal crisis unfolding at home as Heather Clarke, the mother of his two boys, fights cancer has been well documented, as has Darren's own sidefield battle with the unbearable irrelevance of his brilliant career. But what has sometimes been forgotten in this torrid 12 months is that Clarke still genuinely wants to compete and the futility of it all only intensifies when the perfection that may provide a moment's distraction fails to arrive.

Yesterday, apart from that classic horseshoe putt on the last, this impossible search seemed closer to fruition than ever. "I just can't explain it," he said, after five birdies put the lustre on the absence of bogeys. "I have played so badly now for a week or so and today I have gone out and managed to get it on the clubface all day."

You would think Clarke missed the cut at last week's British Masters. He didn't. He was a shot off the lead with four holes to go.

"What can I say?" he shrugged. "I got a decent feeling out there today." Together with Padraig Harrington's own foray into the red - the Dubliner moving stealthily rather than spectacularly to two-under with a 69 - this Saturday in Ireland would normally have been cacophonous. But with a certain rugby match taking place in Cardiff and with the Emerald Isle enacting its own version of desertion, it was surreal watching the home boys stride on to the scene without being mobbed.

Today shall be a deafening contrast - the atmosphere will pull up in green flags and draycarts - which may not be wholly good news for Bjorn. The Dane hates to be reminded of the last time he held the lead going into the last round in Co Kildare, but the blow-up in last year's European Open was so calamitous it has been mighty hard not to hark back to it. After all, an 86 is no way to convert a four-stroke advantage into silverware and, whatever he says, Bjorn's slumber must have suffered since.

Credit then to this affable technician for trying to put it all behind him in the best manner imaginable. The finish yesterday was the stuff tidy 67s are made of; the three-birdied, no-blemished run to the 18th being topped with an eagle on the last. It was also the stuff that men at peace with their demons are made of. But then he does have two sports psychologists now in Jamil Qureshi and Jos Vanstiphout. The former says that he works with Bjorn on general things while the latter takes care of the putting. Vanstiphout has a more delicious way of putting it. "One of us is for Jekyll, the other for Hyde."

Casey will be hoping he of the foaming mouth turns up today after his neat 68 brought his second final-round lead in as many weeks. Indeed, his regrouping, after chucking away the initiative at The Belfry last Sunday, has been as commendable as his Danish rival Bjorn. But whatever the young Englishman's form, the head still says Clarke. The heart, meanwhile, shamelessly screams it.

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