Tuesday 17 October 2017

Clarke 'consumed' by Ryder Cup but ready for Open tilt

Clarke took himself off to the pitching green before briefly stopping for a quick word prior to getting out on the course. Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Clarke took himself off to the pitching green before briefly stopping for a quick word prior to getting out on the course. Photo by Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Darren Clarke has mixed emotions about teeing it up in the 145th Open Championship at Troon this week.

Clarke admits he is consumed by Ryder Cup matters as the season nears its peak ahead of the clash with the USA at Hazeltine from September 30-October 2.

The captaincy of Europe is his priority, but Clarke the golfer, the intense competitor and Claret Jug winner of 2011, hopes against hope that he can recapture some of the old magic for four days, starting this Thursday.

Watching him hit shot after shot on the practice ground at Royal Troon under the watchful eye of coach Pete Cowen, an onlooker could see the desire to get his swing in the groove.

The iPad was locked on to the visuals of Clarke's swing action, and then it was reviewed regularly as the work continued for almost two hours.

Then Clarke took himself off to the pitching green before briefly stopping for a quick word prior to getting out on the course.

First question: "Can you be Darren the golfer, not Ryder Cup captain this week?"

The answer was emphatic: "No," he said. "I'm just thinking about it all the time, but I'll go out this week and see how it goes. I'm hitting the ball nicely."

The work he's doing with Cowen has centred on correcting his spine angle.

"I'm trying not to get ahead of my body. I've been moving my spine angle forward and I've had to move back and collect myself, and that's why I've been struggling a while," said Clarke.

The year so far has yielded little reward, materially and mentally, for the Ryder Cup skipper who has played six events, including the Masters on the European Tour schedule and made only two cuts.

Sacrifice of his own game inevitably comes with the captain's role. It does not make struggling on a golf course any easier, or indeed, acceptable to Clarke who demands high standards of his game.

"I've been more watching and following the guys myself. Then when I have been playing, I haven't done any good, and I've being annoying myself. There are more important things going on than my own golf, but the competitor in me still hates going out and playing awful," he said.

Troon holds some good memories for Clarke who finished tied-second in 1997, and tied-11th in 2004, but he obviously would prefer to forget the three-iron he hit onto the beach off the second tee in the final round when he was co-leader in '97.

Justin Leonard went on to win by three shots from joint second-placed Clarke and Jesper Parnevik, and the Ulster man would have to wait another 14 years to get hold of the Claret Jug.

At 47 - he turns 48 on August 14 - and with the Ryder Cup on the horizon, the chances of a repeat are marginal. Clarke is, however, promoting the cause of Royal Portrush, venue for the Open in 2019, wherever he can, and last year's champion Zach Johnson acknowledged that this is a venue not to be missed.

Redress

Johnson's only experience of Irish golf was the Ryder Cup of 2006 at The K Club, and the WGC-American Express championship in Mount Juliet two years earlier.

He has yet to sample links fare in Ireland, something which Clarke is urging Johnson to redress.

"I was speaking with Darren yesterday evening. Obviously, his love for links golf and any golf in the UK is immense, and he's like, 'Zach, it's going to be one of, if not your favourite courses.'

"I don't have a ranking of golf courses in my mind, but a lot of the top courses I've ever played have been in this tournament (the Open.)

"And he's like, 'It's going to shoot right up there.' So I'm pretty ecstatic about that," said Johnson.

Clarke commented: "It's amazing that he's hasn't played Irish links. Zach loves the game. He's so proud that he's an Open champion.

"He was asking me about Royal Portrush, the course, the changes which are almost complete.

"The day they go on sale, every ticket will be gone, like it was for the Irish Open at Portrush in 2012. It will be brilliant," said Clarke.

Johnson technically remains Open champion until next Sunday evening, unless he retains it, and yesterday he formally handed back the trophy to the R&A.

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