Welsh duo hold off Clarke's challenge

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The Independent Online

Dodd and Dredge may sound like a firm of Dickensian pawnbrokers but in reality they are the two quietly spoken Welshmen daring to keep the home favourite from topping the European Open leaderboard. In fact, scrap that, because after what Darren Clarke has been going through, he is the "global favourite" to prevail here his weekend.

The plight of his wife, Heather, has been well documented as she battles cancer, as has Darren's own grapplings with the sudden irrelevance of a self-obsessed profession. Over the months, Clarke's metamorphosis from man of perspiration to man of perspective has provided an interesting study in human nature, if not a thoroughly heart-wrenching one.

Six weeks ago, just up the road in Maynooth, the Ulsterman threatened to bring the Carton House down with an emotionally charged success in the Irish Open. He failed then, his gutsy challenge to shake off all the rust of a season characterised by his enforced inactivity coming up just short, but if yesterday is anything to go by then this pursuit may not be similarly fated.

Clarke may have only played in one tournament since mid-May - the US Open two weeks ago - but in the past month he has been putting in the hours on the range, making the necessary swing adjustments with Ewen Murray, the former professional and now Sky commentator, and he cashed in on his diligence with a 68 in a second round when the winds announced their presence.

Only Bradley Dredge escaped without a bogey, his 70 nudging him ahead of Stephen Dodd and two of Clarke. This was a day to batten down the hatches rather than hurl open the windows; a day to ride your luck rather than chase perfection.

Clarke did both, by making the most of his fortune on the 10th hole when his ball hopped over the lake by a matter of inches to chip close for a birdie four, but most admirably of all by refusing to drop his head after a couple of bogeys.

"Some of the holes were really tough," he admitted, "but I never threw in the towel, which was something I used to be pretty good at. The one thing I've learnt with all that's gone on is that you never stop fighting."

If anything this new philosophy, married to his overload of innate talent, should make him an even more important member of Ian Woosnam's Ryder Cup side come September, and victory in this £2.4m event would haul him up to 11th in the standings. But Clarke does not have the luxury to fret about such comparative trivialities and confesses he has not spent too much time dwelling on a return to the K Club.

"You know, that's way out of anybody's control," he said. "Heather's struggling a lot at the minute and even if I was in the team I don't know that I would be able to play."

For now he is focusing on overhauling the Welsh duo, and that will not be nearly as easy as the Blarney Army might hope. In Portugal last October, Dodd and Dredge lifted the World Cup and although this European Open could not quite be described as their lap of honour, it may just provide the authenticity their achievement deserved.

Both are best described as tidy first, thrilling second - on the course and off it - but both are blessed with the patience this weekend of forecasted gusts will demand.

As a prelude to the frustrations awaiting out there, Martin Lafeber yesterday chucked his putter into the lake on the 10th and thereafter had to putt out with an eight-iron. Daft? Yes. Understandable? Completely.