CASARES, Spain — Darren Clarke is in a dark place. His spirit is low and his game is in the doldrums. He was dumped out of the Volvo World Match Play Championship losing 6 and 4 on Friday to Justin Rose. Earlier in the day was worn down by Robert Rock who dragged him all the way to the 18th before finishing him off by two holes.
The draw was unkind to Clarke. The 43-year-old Northern Irishman was required to play his two first round matches in one day. He had just 40 minutes to wolf down lunch before heading out to play against Rose. Clarke looked hot and bothered after losing three of the first four holes. He had to win to force a three-way playoff for two spots with Rose and Rock. In his present form Clarke looks unlikely to win a playoff against Rock, Paper and Scissors. Rose put him out of his misery on the 14th hole.
Winning the British Open last year was a dream come true for Clarke. He, of course, wouldn't give it back, but his victory at Royal St George's has turned out to be a poisoned claret jug. The form he showed at the Open has deserted him. He has barely put two rounds in the 6os together since last July and has failed to make a single weekend cut this year.
Clarke came up short of the green with his second shot to the first here but chipped up to the hole. Rose conceded a four. Clarke stood with his arms crossed as Rose stood behind a 25-foot putt from the fringe. It looked like the hole would be halved. Rose rattled it in for a three.
It got worse at the par-3 second. Clarke pushed his tee shot into the bushes and two hacks later he was still in the shrubbery. Rose was 2 up without having to putt. Clarke was 50 yards behind Rose after their drives at the third. They are golfers from different generations. Rose has embraced the modern fashion for wearing what look like boat shoes. Clarke is classic old school in his two-tone mafia spats. He smashed a fabulous fairway wood over the water to the green. Rose arced his approach in with an iron. Hole halved.
The fourth hole is a par 4 but is basically a long par 3 over water. The way Clarke played it summed up his current malaise. Having taken on the water at the previous hole, he went at the flag again. Only this time it went plop. In his deep purple plaid pants, Clarke was Smoked on the Water.But a sublime wedge from the drop zone at least gave him the chance to salvage a half. But, like his luck these days, it lipped out. Rose 3 up. A first aid buggy was parked up behind the green. Turns out a spectator needed patching up. Clarke could have used something to stop the bleeding, too.
He leaned against an advertising board on the next tee. Was he relaxed or resigned? This Finca Cortesin course clings to the side of the hills; it's a brutal test. It's so hilly, players and caddies are driven in carts from greens to elevated tees on overhanging outcrops. If they had to walk, they would have to be roped together like mountaineers. Sherpas would be a better option than caddies. This was not the environment for Clarke. Give him a flat links landscape any day.
The eighth hole provided evidence that the fight was draining out of Clarke. He looked like he had whacked the better drive over the dogleg of the uphill par 5. But when the players rounded the corner, there was Rose's ball in the middle of the fairway. Meanwhile, a group of marshals were staring down the valley off the edge of the fairway into wasteland. Clarke took a brief glance into the abyss (he's been doing a lot of that lately) and signaled to Rose that he was not going to return to the tee.
Hole conceded. Rose 4 up.
Clarke trudged up the hill to the ninth tee. Rose, bizarrely, finished the hole alone. By the time he joined Clarke, the Northern Irishman was lying on the ground in the shade of a tree puffing on a cigarette. Rose stood tall next to him. They chatted. The body language spoke volumes. When Clarke holed a putt for a birdie three as Rose missed the green with a wedge, the applause felt more like sympathy. Clarke had finally won a hole. He fired off that big shining grin of his. But this time, it was the grin of a condemned man.
But everyone wants to see Clarke receive a reprieve. Golf fans love him. He's the People's Champion. They understand his pain and shouted encouragement to him all the way to the end. It was Rose's job to bury his rival, but he came to praise him, too.
"He obviously alluded to the fact that things haven't gone terribly right since winning the Open," Rose said. "It must be tough, all the expectation. The only thing that's gone right for him, which you've got to draw on, is his family life. Obviously he's a good enough player. Hopefully the golf will come around. He's got to try and be patient. We've all been there," said Rose who still remembers the 21 cuts he missed in a row after turning pro. "You can see it still hurts him."
Rose will now play Nicolas Colsaerts in Saturday morning's round of 16 matches, with the marquee match being defending champion Ian Poulter's clash with home favorite Alvaro Quiros. Sergio Garcia takes on Tom Lewis, who led the British Open last year after the first round, while Paul Lawrie vs. Thomas Bjorn is a clash of British Open memories, too. The one who won it at Carnoustie in 1999 against the one who threw it away at Royal St George's in 2003. Meanwhile a PGA Tour member is guaranteed a place in Saturday afternoon's quarterfinals as Nashville's Brandt Snedeker (re-united with his clubs) goes up against Colombia's Camilo Villegas.