Wednesday 20 September 2017

Frustrated Clarke laments poor putting astitle defence starts with whimper

Karl MacGinty

DARREN CLARKE rode an emotional roller-coaster around Lytham yesterday as he opened his defence of the Claret Jug with a wayward 76 that would have tried the patience of a saint.

The popular Ulsterman was applauded onto every tee and green and clearly appreciated the crowd's support -- yet he admitted he was "basically disgusted with myself for shooting six-over."

Remarkably, Clarke then showed his sense of humour was still intact as he confessed: "Coming up the last I was thinking how the bleep did I manage to win this last year?"

Certainly not by playing as poorly as Clarke has in the 12 months since achieving his lifelong ambition at Royal St George's.

Making just one cut so far in 2012, at last month's Irish Open in his hometown Portrush, did not augur well for Clarke's chances this week.

Yet he had suspected that handing back the Claret Jug on Monday morning might somehow draw a line under 12 months in which Clarke admitted he'd tried too hard to play like a British Open champion.

For a few blissful minutes yesterday morning, it looked as if that hope might be fulfilled as Clarke hit a majestic seven-iron to six feet on Lytham's 205-yard opening hole.

Uniquely at modern Major championship venues, Lytham's first hole is a par-three but Clarke, full of positive energy after the splendid reception he received as defending champion, was equal to it.

His face was wreathed in smiles as he walked after his ball onto the green. However, Clarke's joy would be short-lived as he produced more of a prod than a stroke with his putter and his ball dribbled by on the low side.

Worse was to come at the second, where his tee shot was arcing right towards the Blackpool to Preston railway line when it struck a tree and fell into bottomless rough.

After beating his ball back into play, barely 40 yards up the fairway, Clarke made bogey there, followed by another out of a right greenside bunker at three.

"I've hit it well in practice and hit it well on the range and went out there today and couldn't do it," he conceded.

"I started hitting it in the bunkers. Even though my strike was good, I was starting too many shots right of my target and couldn't quite figure out a way to get it back on line again. Couple that with not holing any putts at all... I think I had two single putts, one from a foot and the other from three feet.

"I couldn't marry the line and pace of my putts at all. The greens were perfect -- it was me."

His failure to take advantage of a benign day at Lytham left Clarke in desperate need of birdies today if he's to make the cut but as he admitted himself: "You can't really go chasing here. You've got to manoeuvre your way around."

Asked if it was a long way back, Clarke said wistfully: "It's a long drive home, isn't it."

Clarke's Portrush neighbour Alan Dunbar (22), winner of the recent British Amateur, was also frustrated after shooting 75 in the company of championship leader Adam Scott.

The tall, languid Rathmore player briefly led the Australian after opening with five straight pars.

Yet his confidence was rocked by an ugly treble-bogey seven at the gruelling sixth hole, which played as a par-five when the British Open last visited Lytham in 2001.

"I made a terrible swing off the tee, got a lucky break in the rough then hit it into a plugged lie in a fairway bunker and left it in there," explained Dunbar.

He rebounded with nice birdies at eight and nine but lost his drive right at the par-five 11th, leading to a seven, before making double-bogey from mid-fairway at 15.

"I don't know how I managed to get round in five-over with a triple and two double-bogeys," said Dunbar.

"Adam played great all day," the youngster added.

"He was much more aggressive off the tee than I was -- I had no confidence at all off the tee and struggled," he admitted.

"I'll go to the range, work on it and see if my driving's better tomorrow.

"I'm hitting enough good shots, my short game is good and I'm putting well so there's no reason I can't hit a good score tomorrow."

Irish Independent

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