Can little Northern Ireland produce three major golf champions in scarcely more than a year?
That was the question understandably, if prematurely, on plenty of lips here yesterday, as 42-year-old Darren Clarke, following a putting lesson from the American sports psychologist Bob Rotella, produced a second consecutive 68 to find himself, for much of a fascinating day, on top of the leaderboard.
It is 14 years since Clarke led at the halfway stage of an Open Championship, after posting rounds of 67 and 66 at Royal Troon to lead by two from the eventual winner Justin Leonard, and back then it seemed more likely than not that the burly Ulsterman's game, honed in the wind and rain on the County Antrim coast, would one day capture him a Claret Jug. His second to the 18th yesterday, cutting a seven-iron into the wind to set up a fifth birdie, was a shot unfurled in Kent but forged in Northern Ireland.
Yet since tying for second place in 1997 Clarke has only fleetingly shone in the Open, tying for seventh at St Andrews in 2000, and for third the following year at Lytham. Indeed, his best finishes in all four majors are at least a decade behind him. Yesterday, however, having ironed out a few problems in his putting stroke in a session with Rotella, he unveiled the kind of scoring that once promised even more rewards than he has accumulated, if also at times the kind of scoring that has denied him those rewards. There were five birdies and an eagle, but also three bogeys and a double-bogey, in a round Clarke himself described as "adventurous".
He dampened speculation that the adventure might culminate in him stepping off the 18th green as champion tomorrow evening, pointing out that there's still a great deal of golf to be played. On the other hand, he was pleased to hear that after yesterday's sunshine, the forecast for the weekend is poor. It surely won't be as poor as he's used to at Royal Portrush, and having moved back to Northern Ireland for the sake of his sons' education, he is playing more links golf than he has for years.
Clarke cuts an unmistakeable figure on the links. He is currently in one of his heftier phases, and was asked afterwards whether there was any truth in rumours circulated by his manager Chubby Chandler, no bantamweight himself, that he is considering enrolling with Weight Watchers. "Chubby has always said that I play better fat," he replied. "I've obviously been adhering to that theory." But having watched himself on Thursday night's TV highlights, he added, he could see that a diet might not be a bad idea.
It is partly Clarke's size, though, that makes him such a popular figure with British crowds. He is a walking, smoking, Guinness-drinking counterblast to the notion that the modern professional golfer has to be a finely-tuned athlete with a six-pack. Clarke keeps his six-packs in the fridge. Of course, it could be that more fitness might have yielded more trophies, but if anyone embodies the advice of the late Walter Hagen, twice an Open winner here, that the pursuit of glory is all very well but should also leave time "to smell the flowers", it is Clarke. A gesture as he strode to the 16th tee yesterday, tossing his ball to a thrilled little boy, was typical.
Moreover, it is not quite five years since Clarke participated so heroically in the Ryder Cup at the K Club, the month after his wife Heather had died of breast cancer. If he is still contending tomorrow afternoon, the intensity of pressure and emotion will not be anything like as fierce as it was then. "I wouldn't say it's a breeze," he said of the prospect of entering the final stretch in strong contention, "but nothing would be more difficult than it was at the K Club."
Clarke's form these last few years has been decidedly patchy, but two months ago in Majorca he won a European Tour event for the first time since 2008. Yesterday, however, he denied that the US Open victories of his fellow Ulstermen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy had replenished the competitive juices. "It hasn't really affected me apart from being proud that I'm from the same place as they are and I may have given them a little bit of a helping hand here and there on the way up," he said.
They will be leading the applause if he does prevail tomorrow, although the most delighted onlooker might just be Chandler. Whatever transpires, it's good to know that an old nag can make as much noise in a stable as the young thoroughbreds.Reuse content