Scottish Open: Clarke finds great mate Dane a pain

Leader's slips see him in familiar company for finale
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The Independent Online

Uh-oh, Bjorn again. Darren Clarke could have been forgiven that sentiment here yesterday as the Ulsterman saw his three-stroke overnight lead at the Barclays Scottish Open grad-ually eroded by his good mate Thomas Bjorn.

The duo will play together in the final pairing today, with Clarke and the Dane - long-term friends and fellow Liverpool fans, and we're not just talking Hoylake - set to tee off at 12.51pm, two clear of the field at 11 under par.

Recent precedent suggests a battle of will as much as of skill. At the Irish Open in May Clarke led until late, only to blow his chance with two bogeys, allowing Bjorn to birdie the 18th for the title.

Yet Clarke insists that is history, and that his closeness to Bjorn will have no relevance today. "Losing [in Ireland] was my own mistake, that wasn't me handing the tournament to Thomas," he said. "He'll be trying to beat me as much as I'm trying to beat him."

Clarke carded a level-par 71 yesterday, with birdies at the fourth, sixth and 16th offset by a hat-trick of bogeys, the first of which arrived on the stunning seventh against a gorgeous backdrop of sun-drenched loch and mountain fringe. Clarke's play at that hole, especially the missed four-foot putt for par, was marred by a loon on a jet- ski. Not content with ripping up and down the strip of water adjacent to the fairway during play, the exhibitionist then turned repeatedly to spray an accomplice in a speedboat while the putting was under way.

"He was pissing me off," laughed Clarke afterwards. "I'd love to say he was putting me off, but it wasn't that bad. He was having a little bit of fun, enjoying the weather."

A string of missed putts were the reason for Clarke not shooting three or four lower. There was one at the fifth, then after the seventh a birdie effort fell inches short on the eighth, a par three, and another attempt was just off at the 9th. With a wry grin, he pretended to snap his putter.

In contrast, Bjorn, who won here in 1996 to claim his first title, had a second consecutive storming day, carding a five-under 66 to add to the 65 he shot on Friday. "This place has a huge place in heart as the place that set me on my way," he said. "When the weather's like this, there's not a finer venue on the European Tour. I played solid golf today and that's a good thing to take into tomorrow."

While the Clarke-Bjorn tussle will take centre stage, there are contenders aplenty within a few shots. Scotland's David Drysdale, England's Benn Barham and Argentina's Andres Romero (all on nine under after yesterday) will be vying for the one Open place at Royal Liverpool available to the best-placed non-exempt finisher here.

This event's defending champion, Tim Clark, is a shot further back on eight under along with three others. His South African compatriot Ernie Els shot 67 yesterday to move stealthily to seven under ahead of today's denouement.