The last time Darren Clarke strolled up the 18th fairway at the Open, he knew he was about to claim the Claret Jug and be crowned champion golfer of the year. The memory of that glorious St George's coronation last July came flooding back yesterday as Clarke completed the first round of the defence of his title. What was he thinking? "How the bleep did I ever manage to win this last year," Clarke said with a shrug and a chuckle. It was gallows humour. His six-over-par 76 was no laughing matter.
Indeed, that walk to the final green was more of a stomp to greet the hangman. There was steam rising out of Clarke's head (he was puffing on a cigarette) and his face was redder than an angry tomato. He looked like a pressure cooker about to explode. "I wouldn't pick a fight with him," whispered a spectator as Clarke stared into the distance, or maybe it was the abyss, before playing his approach.
The 43-year-old Ulsterman has a self-confessed short fuse and when he's annoyed and frustrated and the black dog begins to descend, his bark really is as bad as his bite and makes Colin Montgomerie seem like Mother Teresa. So as he stopped to pour over the post-mortem of his disastrous round, it was advisable to treat him as if he had "Danger! Highly Flammable! Handle With Care!" stamped on his forehead.
"I don't think you could publish my thoughts right now," he said, eyes so wide and extended and full of fury that they looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets at any second.
But credit to the Big Man for taking it on the chin like the true defending champion that he is and for keeping that legendary temper in check – at least in public. With no cats readily available to kick, goodness knows what state the door of his locker is in now. "I'm disgusted with myself," Clarke said before taking his leave, followed by his own personal storm cloud.
But it had all started so well. Clarke grinned his way from the practice putting green to the first tee, cheered all the way, before being announced as the Open champion. He hit a beautiful trademark arcing iron to six feet at the par three. Then promptly stabbed the putt wide.
A self-inflicted punch to the solar plexus no sooner than the bell has rung is not exactly the prescribed way to settle the nerves with 17 holes to go. It got worse – quickly. His tee shot at the second skewed right and was heading in the direction of the railway line until it hit a tree.
Earlier in the week, Clarke said that if your ball ends up where he hit it yesterday, you might as well go home. Maybe he was thinking about hopping on the 9.30 train to Preston and heading for Manchester Airport.
"I hit a lovely tee shot at the first and hit a poor putt, and from there it just got worse," Clarke said. "It was disappointing because in practice I hit it really well. But what can I do? I tried my best on every shot, but unfortunately it wasn't there again today. The course is so benign; if you hit good shots you're going to get rewarded. I wasn't able to make any putts at all to gain any momentum. A bad day at the office."
The tally of his shift showed just one birdie roasted by seven bogeys. But the crowd loved him nonetheless and Clarke thanked them with a wave of his visor and a smile.
He looked like he could do with a hug and got one from his pal Ernie Els, one of his playing partners and the 2002 Open champion. Els is just one year younger than Clarke and has been the Big Queasy as much as the Big Easy these last few years. But the South African is ascending another peak of late, shooting a three-under-par 67 here, and showed sympathy for Clarke. "I've been there," Els said. "I was there for over a year. Your confidence is low, you get the wrong bounces. He had quite a few unlucky bounces. It's difficult to get yourself up from there. But he's playing beautifully, he was trying really hard, and his attitude is great."
Clarke will need all the support he can get today, and his share of lucky bounces, if he is to avoid missing the cut. He has made just one weekend all year and that was at his home course at Royal Portrush during the Irish Open.
"The crowd were great today," Clarke said. "They kept shouting for me and showing me support. Unfortunately I couldn't reciprocate." Clarke is a fighter. Royal Lytham can expect some counter-punching in round two.
Shot, shank and strides of the day
Shot of the day
Paul Lawrie pulled out a spectacular finish on five. The Scot launched his ball out of the undergrowth and it skipped across the green and found the hole.
Shank of the day
Padraig Harrington was caught on the fourth as he attempted to clear a bunker. His shot sent both the ball and chunks of earth straight into the sand.
Strides of the day
John Daly wore typically garish trousers, apparently mimicking the Norway flag. Hopefully, their eye-catch-ing qualities will deflect from his faltering display.
Diane Donald (wife of Luke): Cup of coffee in hand ready to watch Luke tee off in the Open Championship! Let's go Luuke!
Ian Poulter Ouch that's got to hurt Rory just pitched it on someone's nut. Ouch. Hope the Lad is ok. Take longer over a shot Keegan wow. 5 minutes for 1 shot. Too long