DARREN CLARKE has been drawing flab-bergasted second glances around Durban Country Club this week after shedding 40-plus pounds over the winter.
And even though he has stepped down from golf's heavyweight division, 45-year-old Clarke insisted he now packs a much harder punch.
The 2011 British Open champion looks slimmer yet feels stronger than he has for years, courtesy of a comprehensive diet and exercise programme drawn up by a Dublin fitness guru.
Clarke has carved six inches off his waist and dropped several shirt sizes, leading to a complete wardrobe change and a bonanza for his local Oxfam shop.
Confirming that he had disposed of more than a hundred pairs of trousers, Clarke went on: "I've hung onto some as back-up but I've literally had to replace everything in my wardrobe.
"It's a medium now," he said, impishly fingering the collar of his polo shirt on the practice range as he prepared to swing into action in tomorrow's first round of the Champions Tournament in the sweltering South Africa summer.
A chance meeting with Dublin-based Jamie Myerscough at an outing he hosted for the Duke of Abercorn at Rockmount GC just outside Belfast last October sparked this dramatic change in Clarke. Asked what had motivated him to beat his burgeoning beer belly down to a six-pack, Clarke bluntly replied: "I was too fat!"
Frustrated after fading out of contention during the closing stages of the Dunhill Links Championship and several other tournaments, Clarke mentioned it to Myerscough, chief executive of the Educogym in Dublin and a decent single-figure handicap, during the fund-raiser for the Royal Irish Regiment and Irish Guards Benevolent Society.
"We got talking about it during the round and Jamie said 'right, I'll help you'. So I started with him," the Ulsterman explained. "It's a pretty short programme. I lift very heavy weights and, obviously, food has changed. I'm taking supplements and all that carry-on, which I hadn't done before.
"He got me into it and I see him five or six mornings a week at 7.0 on Facetime. Jamie's in Dublin and I'm in my gym at home. There's no cardio, it's all weights and I'm in and out of the gym in 30 minutes, that's it.
"When most people lose weight, they lose strength as well. But I've gone the other way. I've lost weight and have got twice as strong."
He admitted that he never used to weigh himself as his waistline expanded alarmingly in recent years and he slipped to No 297 in the world.
Yet after losing "nearly three stone" in less than three months, he now weighs well below 14 stone. Asked what he had to give up to achieve this result, Clarke went on: "Sugars. I eat low (sugars) and low fats. That's not to say I didn't have the odd pint or two over Christmas. I just do what Jamie tells me to do and it has obviously been very, very good.
"I was getting too big and too tired. I actually played nicely at the Dunhill but made mistakes in the final five holes. It was the same old thing. That's what I've been doing for a few years.
"There have been a few poor swings or whatever but, obviously, a certain degree of that would point towards fatigue, so a lot of what I've been doing was just to get me stronger and fitter."
Watching the sweat-saturated player strike balls down the range yesterday, Clarke's caddie Andy Sutton insisted: "He's certainly not short. In fact, he told me anytime we're in between clubs this week, we go for the lesser one!"
When someone complimented him for his "amazing enthusiasm", Clarke retorted: "Is Padraig Harrington's enthusiasm any different? Is Jose Maria Olazabal's or Thomas Bjorn's or that of Miguel Angel Jimenez? When you love this game, you've got it in your blood.
"The people that you see working away all the time are the people that love to be here."
As it happened, the other two players practising alongside Clarke in the 89 degree heat yesterday were Jimenez (50), and Olazabal (47).
Clarke hasn't had much of an opportunity to practise in Portrush during the winter and he's likely to be as ring-rusty as any of the other 36 players in the field at the European Tour's €4m new year pipe-opener.
Yet he feels fitter and fresher than at any other time in recent years for a season campaigning on both the European and US tours, saying: "I feel better and a lot stronger and it can't do me any harm, can it?"