Home truths favour Clarke

The British challenge » Irishman's love of the links makes him the best placed of three men in the same boat. Andy Farrell suggests the boy from Portrush has a crucial edge over Monty and Westwood
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The Independent Online

If, as the inventor Thomas Edison insisted, genius is 99 per cent perspiration and only one per cent inspiration, it must be the one per cent that has been missing for Britain's big three golfers. Certainly, there has been no little perspiration shed, especially in the steamier American venues such as Tulsa last month, by the trio of Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood in pursuit of a major championship title, but they have yet to emulate the successes of their immediate predecessors, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam.

Talent and luck is another way of looking at it and even Tiger Woods, the most talented of all, agrees that you cannot hope to succeed without the latter. When it deserts the world No 1, as it did at the US Open, it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

Retief Goosen's win was a significant victory for the European Tour, who can also claim a hand in Vijay Singh's two majors as well as those of Paul Lawrie and Jose Maria Olazabal. The only other player (apart from Woods, of course) to win a major in the last couple of years was the late Payne Stewart. So it is ironic that although the European Tour has enjoyed relative success recently in majors, its three leading players have not.

Montgomerie has now gone 40 majors without winning a trophy although, of course, the Scot has come desperately close both in the US Open and the US PGA. Westwood, despite his happy knack of consistently closing out Tour victories, has rarely found himself in contention at the majors. Clarke is not nearly as consistent as the other two but has the advantage when it comes to links golf.

It is a matter of upbringing. For all his affinity with Royal Troon, where his father was secretary for a number of years, Montgomerie learnt his golf at Ilkley in Yorkshire. Nor is Worksop, where Westwood grew up, any nearer the sea. Clarke, however, enjoyed his formative years at Portrush, where the wind blows and the concept of bump-and-run is king.

"I grew up playing links golf and enjoying landing the ball 50 yards short of the green or putting from 40 yards off the green," said Clarke. That probably sounds like a foreign language to Montgomerie and Westwood, who given the need to hit the ball exactly 202 yards on to a holding green can execute the shot with utter precision. That is why their July victories have come at Loch Lomond.

"We don't play as many links courses as I'd like," said Clarke. "I always enjoy the chance to go back and play that way again." The Irishman was seventh last year at St Andrews, 11th at Lytham in 1996 and second to Justin Leonard at Troon in 1997. Clarke led for much of that Open but his challenge faltered when he hit his tee shot at the second on to the beach.

"Maybe I was a bit overawed by the position I was in," said Clarke. "I hadn't done an awful lot by that stage. Obviously I am a lot more experienced now, both in terms of winning tournaments and the experience I've gained from doing so.

"I think I am much more ready for this Open than I was in '97. I am really looking forward to Lytham. It's probably the first major I've gone into looking forward to it as much as I am."

Beating Woods in the World Matchplay at La Costa last year was a seminal moment in Clarke's career, but the significance of his victory in the European Open at the K Club in front of his home crowd cannot be ignored. Simply put, he cannot pile any more pressure on himself at a major than when he is playing in Ireland. "Last weekend was a big monkey off my back," he said. "I wanted it so badly."

Quite what gets to Montgomerie at the Open, the pressure of expectation or links golf itself, who knows. "I do like links golf and I think it is purely coincidental, hopefully anyway, that I haven't performed on links courses," he said, pointing to a 64 at Carnoustie in the Scottish Open as evidence for the defence – but then he has also had an 81 there.

In 11 Opens, Montgomerie has missed the cut five times and had only one top-10 finish. "I've only played one Open at Lytham and went home on Friday afternoon," he said. "But I like Lytham because it is possibly one of the tightest courses on the rota and I am driving the ball particularly well right now. You don't have to play perfect golf to win a major," Montgomerie added, "You have to try to eliminate the mistakes because you don't want to leave the course at an Open with the 'if only' business. It is such a huge word, not only in golf but in life. I can say I've never left an Open venue without saying 'if only I'd done that'. Hopefully this year I can."

Perhaps a more relaxed attitude, forced on him by his marriage problems last year, will help. He returned to the winner's podium at the Irish Open, but Westwood is still waiting for his first win of the year. Worse, he missed his first cut in four events at Loch Lomond. He admits to being distracted by the birth of his son, Sam, in April but, having ended Monty's reign as European No 1 last year, has found it difficult that his struggles have been more highlighted than in the past. As well as endeavouring to find form, Westwood has been trying to make a few changes. Pete Cowen, his coach, thinks it is a case of "doing the simple things better, then the difficult things take care of themselves". Westwood insists he can only emerge a better player: "Having a period of not playing well makes you appreciate playing well a lot more. You learn more about your swing in adversity."

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