Monday 27 March 2017

Clarke can pocket £2m bonus by winning Open

Dermot Gilleece , in Sandwich

When earlier rain had given way to an unexpectedly bright Kent evening, Darren Clarke moved a step closer to a lucrative bonus from the 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's.

A £2m jackpot lies in wait for the 42-year-old, whose third-round 69 left him on five-under-par and a stroke clear of Dustin Johnson at the top of the leaderboard.

The 10-year Major championship deal was struck in 2005 by Clarke's management company, ISM, with retail magnate, Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United FC. ISM colleagues Lee Westwood and David Howell are also named in the no-win-no-pay arrangement involving Dunlop clothing and Ashley's Sports Direct business.

Clarke's performance was characterised by the things he has always done so well. Though he drove the ball beautifully, the priceless key was superb iron play. With the familiar, abbreviated follow-through, he worked the ball with obvious relish over tricky, windswept terrain for a round which contained only two bogeys.

Who knows what the extent of his lead might have been had he putted as well as he had done over the first two days. Yesterday's 34 putts compared disappointingly with a previous average of 27. Small wonder that he highlighted the importance of his play tee to green. "That was about as good as I could have struck the ball and I'm very excited to be where I am," he said.

He then graciously acknowledged his good fortune with the draw. "The draw in the Open Championship makes a huge difference and we got very lucky," he said. "Though we started in terrible conditions, it sort of cleared up after four or five holes."

Horrific weather earlier in the day signalled, in the view of cynical Americans, the arrival of summer to these parts. Yet from the young to the not-so-young, their challengers coped admirably.

While Rickie Fowler was outshining playing partner Rory McIlroy by six strokes with a 68 against a 74, 61-year-old Tom Watson carded a quite amazing 72 in the worst of the weather.

Five of the strokes separating the former Walker Cup rivals came on a stretch of four holes on the homeward journey. Where the 22-year-old American went birdie, par, birdie, birdie from the 13th, McIlroy carded par, double-bogey, par, par. Clearly, the most costly for the Irishman was the treacherous long 14th where, with the wind sweeping from the left, he carved his drive out of bounds.

"I found it really tough out there, so it was a decent effort to go through the first 13 holes in two-over," he said afterwards. "But to give two away on 14 was very disappointing. I tried to make a few birdies coming in, but it didn't happen." Crucially, there was no hint of panic. The lesson of last year's 80 at St Andrews had been learned.

The masterclass concept is greatly overblown these days, but there was no mistaking the genuine article from Watson. All the great links shots were there, from driver off the fairway and low-flighted irons, to short-game expertise including a very productive putting stroke.

Delighted galleries saw him as a sort of family friend, with his hands in the pockets of his wet-suit jacket, looking for all the world like some absent-minded fan who had inadvertently strayed to the wrong side of the fairway ropes.

Quoting the old golfing adage, 'Swing with ease, into the breeze', he used it to splendid effect. And he putted beautifully, completing an impressive total of 88 for 54 holes, given the conditions. "The way the putter worked today reminded me of how important it was when I was winning these things," he said.

Though three putts from off the front of the 18th would have hurt, Watson looked remarkably fresh for his age after a trial by wind, rain and seriously undulating terrain. "What are you guys laughing at?" was his opening line to the assembled media. "You just love to see us pros suffer."

Towards mid-afternoon, friendlier skies welcomed Clarke, the joint leader overnight, who set off with his Irish caddie, Bray's John Mulrooney, and with a ringing endorsement from his one-time coach. "I would put Darren alongside Lee Trevino and Christy Senior among the great wind players," said the grizzled Bob Torrance. "He is certainly the best wind player out there today."

And he proceeded to prove it.

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