SANDWICH, England (AP) — Once the face of golf in Northern Ireland, Darren Clarke has become the forgotten man.
First it was Graeme McDowell winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last year. Then it was Rory McIlroy capturing the same major at Congressional last month.
At the British Open on Thursday, it was Clarke’s chance to shine.
Boosted by regular practice back home on the Royal Portrush links course, the 42-year-old Ulsterman shot a patient 2-under 68 to leave himself tied for fifth on the opening day at Royal St. George’s.
“I enjoy any time I get back on links,” Clarke said. “It’s the biggest and best tournament in the world – why wouldn’t I enjoy it? It’s the only major that’s played on the turf the game started on.”
While McIlroy battled his way through tough winds and occasional rain to shoot a 71 in the morning, Clarke played the course in still, brightening conditions in the afternoon, picking up shots on Nos. 10 and 14 before parring his way home.
Patience, a characteristic Clarke readily acknowledges isn’t his forte, was his watchword. He credited his session with renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella on Wednesday.
“I can’t tell you what he said – I paid him a lot of money,” Clarke said. “We just talked about things. He knows me inside out and we’ve known each other for a very long time. I was lucky.”
Clarke has never won a major – the closest he’s come is at the British Open when he tied for second at Royal Troon in 1997 and tied for third at Lytham in 2003 – but he does have pedigree.
In 2000, he went head to head with Tiger Woods in the Accenture World Match Play final and outplayed the then-No. 1 4 and 3, earning a $1 million first prize and the biggest payday of his career. Three years later, he won the NEC Invitational at Firestone Country Club. He has 11 wins on the European Tour, the latest coming at the Iberdrola Open in Majorca in May.
With the gray hair has come problems with the putter. He rectified that on Thursday.
“My tee to green has been very good recently, but my putting’s been poor. Today, it was very good,” Clarke said. “It’s only the first round but I played very nicely. My ball flight was pretty much under control all day and that’s what you’ve got to do to do well on links.”
After 13 years in London, he is back living in Northern Ireland, regularly playing at the Portrush course that hosted the British Open in 1951.
“I moved back last summer so I’m playing my golf at Royal Portrush all the time. I feel very comfortable,” he said.
“This one (at Royal St. George’s) is particularly difficult because of the undulation of the fairways and the demands it puts on you with your second shot. It’s a real, real tough course. You’ve got to stay patient, which hasn’t always been one of my strong points. But that’s what the Open and playing on links is all about.”