Sport Golf

Sunday 24 September 2017

Clarke digs deep to keep Irish flag flying

Former champion stays cool to grind way into mix as McIlroy bows out in better spirits

Darren Clarke splashes out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the second round at Muirfield
Darren Clarke splashes out of the bunker on the sixth hole during the second round at Muirfield

Karl MacGinty

THE 'brain-dead' arose and appeared to many at Muirfield yesterday to be in a much better place mentally – though crestfallen after missing the cut for the first time at the British Open, Rory McIlroy no longer appeared as bewildered, confused or forlorn as he had on Thursday.

In adding a second-round 74 to his abject opening 79, McIlroy slumped to 12-over-par and his worst-ever performance at one of the four Majors.

The 24-year-old had failed to make the weekend in just three of his previous 19 visits to golf's Grand Slam Championships, and had racked up double-figures over-par only once before when he slumped to 10-over through 36 holes at last summer's US Open in Olympic.

"I'm disappointed but I guess I've a clearer picture of what I need to work on and what I need to do to put things right," he sighed. "Sometimes this game can feel further away than it actually is ... and yesterday it couldn't have felt much further away."

A share of 118th place, 15 shots off the lead held by ageless Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, is yet another depressing landmark in a season of discontent for McIlroy, who made a valiant attempt to single out what caused him to go into freefall in 2013.

"I don't know if I can single out one thing," said McIlroy. "I think it's been a combination of things. My schedule hasn't been quite right, my swing hasn't been quite right and a combination of those has led, I guess, to sloppy play, just because I'm not sharp enough."

He neglected to mention the adjustment required by his new Nike equipment, which certainly contributed to McIlroy's loss of the confidence, momentum and aura of invincibility he had brought into this season as world No 1.

Ironically, Yonex, the Japanese tennis racquet manufacturers, this week tore-up their contract with McIlroy's girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki because she played recently with another firm's equipment, blacking out their logo with tape.

Wozniacki was world No 1 when signed by Yonex in 2011 but, now at No 10, apparently reverted to the Babolat racquet she had used to get to the top.

SATISFIED

McIlroy appears a lot more satisfied with his Nike equipment after giving the prototype driver they've just made for him a thorough work-out at Muirfield yesterday.

After playing the first seven holes of his second round in five-over, including an ugly double-bogey five at seven after taking two to get out of an awful lie in a cavernous greenside bunker, McIlroy took out his driver and blazed away.

"I decided to use driver on every hole I could because that's going to be a big factor the next few weeks," he explained. "I actually drove the ball pretty well and ended up playing the last 11 holes one-under. That was encouraging."

McIlroy even managed to raise a fist-pump and a smile when he holed a lengthy putt from the fringe for a birdie four at 17. All's far from lost for a player who has sorely lacked regular tournament play this summer but will benefit greatly from six events in eight weeks, beginning with the Bridgestone WGC the week after next.

Significantly, there's no halfway cut at Firestone, where McIlroy last August lit the touchpaper on a spectacular four months in which he won his second Major title by a record margin and leapt to the top of the world.

A level-par 71 left Jimenez one ahead of Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, Dustin Johnson and, most ominously of all, Tiger Woods, as the survivors braced themselves for an even more torrid time this weekend on the fiery-fast fairways and marble-hard greens.

While McIlroy complained of being "brain dead" during Thursday's 79, Darren Clarke has spent two fruitless and frustrating years desperately to find a way to lapse back into the same sublime state of "unconsciousness" which helped him win the 2011 British Open.

On that occasion, Clarke attributed the greatest victory of his career to a near trance-like calmness in which American sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella helped the gifted but highly-strung Ulsterman get out of his own way for four days at Royal St George's.

It was interesting to see Clarke link up with Dr Rotella and head for the range after the satisfying second-round 71 which established the 44-year-old as Ireland's leading contender in a share of 12th on one-over.

Clarke blazed into action yesterday morning, hitting his ball close on the first five holes as he took full advantage of greens made slightly softer by hand-watering overnight (before those putting surfaces began to bake hard once again under the broiling sun).

A hat-trick of birdies at the third, fourth and fifth holes sent Clarke rocketing into red figures for this championship, yet by far the most revealing moment came at the challenging sixth as he racked up a quadruple-bogey eight that would have tested the patience of a saint.

Forced to hit out sideways from tangled left rough, Clarke's next shot landed in a near-impossible lie close to the riveted front wall of a greenside bunker. Twice he tried and failed to make his escape from this trap. Yet as the golfing world awaited a thermo-nuclear explosion, Clarke simply chuckled to himself, stepped out of the bunker for a moment's pause. It was almost surreal.

Upon his return, he hit his ball 12 feet past the cup and two-putted for eight before walking on, his composure remaining rock-solid as he made par at seven and eight before holing from 22 feet for birdie at nine to turn in even-par.

Clarke registered another birdie at 12 and, despite an annoying second bogey five in two days at 18, was in good enough mood to give a couple of casual interviews, even if for the second day in succession he declined to formally meet the media in the mixed zone.

Asked if he'd got that old St George's feeling after that early hat-trick of birdies, Clarke said: "It's Friday morning and there's a long way to go. I'm not playing quite the way I'd like but I'm doing alright."

In this benign mood, Clarke, who proved his prowess on the links at Sandwich, could be a real threat this weekend as, indeed, can Graeme McDowell three shots back on four-over.

The biggest smile on 18 yesterday belonged to Shane Lowry after a fabulous birdie three which drew a fist-pump from the Clara man as he made the weekend for the second time in two visits to the British Open.

Lowry had to endure a nervy climax to his second round after demoralising bogeys at 14, 15 and 16 for the second day in succession dropped him to seven-over and left him with no leeway for error if he was to make it beyond half-way.

Yet he blasted a monster drive down the final fairway, then hit a towering 140-yard nine-iron to just inside five feet and holed a tricky downhill putt. "I really wanted to make the cut and now I have, I still feel I can do well," he explained, still beaming with elation after that closing three to the second-round 74 which lifted him to six-over."

Coincidentally, Padraig Harrington also bogeyed 14, 15 and 16 before slipping up again after driving into the deep left rough at 18. Yesterday's 75 left the three-time Major champion seething with frustration until he realised in mid-afternoon that he'd make the weekend with two shots to spare on six-over.

British Open,

Live, BBC1/Setanta Irl, 10.0

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