THE 126th OPEN: Clarke enjoys heat in the kitchen

the leader who has bucked the trend of 18-hole heroes
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The Independent Online
Early leaders are not supposed to be like this. Darren Clarke, if he had conformed to type, would have popped his head into the glare yesterday and disappeared as fast as his trepidation would let him.

The history of the Open is full of 18-hole heroes who have shot to the top and then disappeared faster than Nick Faldo's bonhommie. Bobby Clampett did it at Royal Troon in 1982; Greg Turner at Turnberry three years ago and Bill Longmuir is the high priest of the breed having twice been ahead on the road to nowhere. You can have your slice of fame but you are not supposed to linger.

Clarke, though, clearly had not read the script. On a day so still the big names were supposed to tear Royal Troon apart it was the teddy bear shape of the 28-year-old Northern Irishman who dominated the second round. We waited in vain for the Tiger and got him instead, it was a bit like Winnie the Pooh becoming a man-eater when every one was watching out for Shere Khan.

With Troon still shaking the sleep from its eyes, Clarke grabbed hold of the second round and refused to let go. On four under overnight, he rolled in a putt from 20 feet at the first at just past 8am, holed from 10 feet at the second and got his third birdie at the fourth while most of the nation was thinking about another piece of toast. What had happened to the frightened rabbit we had anticipated? He was seven under and miles ahead of the field.

"I was calm," Clarke said, who finished the day nine below regulation. "It didn't make any difference that I led. It was the first round of the tournament, you know?" We knew, and so should he.

There are people who specialise in watching disasters that happen to people presumptuous to lead the Open. They are called journalists and they were astonished that there were no grisly remains to mull over.

"I was fine today, very relaxed," he added as if he had just finished reading the papers after a stroll along the beach instead of hitting a five-under-par 66. "There may be pressure, certainly on Sunday, but at the moment I'll go out and enjoy myself. I've enjoyed the first two days and I hope I'll enjoy the next two." The man can have no blood in his veins.

Just for while did the tell-tale sign of stress seem to appear. Clarke was not taking his driver out of his bag which usually means a player is beginning to appreciate the significance of what he is doing. Elbows began to nudge neighbours, whispers began to hiss.

"The nerves are beginning to show, he's getting scared," someone said sotto voce in the crowd, in which case he had a funny way of exhibiting it. Three more birdies were accrued by the turn and if it were not for trip-ups at the two par-threes on the outward half he would have got to the turn in the rarefied air of 30.

It transpired that his reluctance to take out his longest club had more to to do with intelligence than fear, another characteristic not normally associated with Open upstarts. "The wind wasn't blowing too strong," he said, "and some bunkers were in range with mis-hit drivers. I thought `I'm better off playing short of them than taking them on'."

Short did not mean shy. He saved par from the nerve-jangling distance of six feet at the 12th and with positive confirmation that he could still hold his putter without it shaking uncontrollably, he rolled in two 20-footers at the 14th and 16th. Clarke is not known for opening himself up on the course but he thumped the air enthusiastically with his fist.

"He now realises he's a good player," Andrew Chandler, his manager, said as he wandered proudly in his charge's wake. "People were telling him he was but he didn't believe it.

"I was sent out to get the fish and chips last night, and he had one beer. All the players that I manage know how to party, but they also know when to party. Darren works his ass off, and he's the perfect role model for the other up-and-coming guys like Lee Westwood, Andrew Coltart and David Howell.

"I've been saying for months that the next stage of his development would to be in contention in a major."

Well, he is experiencing the heat of the kitchen now - his 133 equalled the record for two rounds at Troon - and on line to emulate two other members of his Northern Ireland club who won the Open, Fred Daly (now deceased) and Max Faulkner. Expect the queue to join Royal Portrush this morning to be headed by one C Montgomerie Esq.

Which led to the most startling revelation of them all yesterday: the man leading the Open was given lessons this week by someone lagging a long way behind the expectation. No, not Tiger Woods, but big Monty, who took Clarke under his wing this week and showed him the pitfalls of the course.

An unusual case of the pupil surpassing the master if ever there was one one. But Clarke was an unusual leader yesterday.