Putting woes sink Clarke's bid to catch Schwartzel
CHARL SCHWARTZEL must be the world's hottest golfer right now. So there's absolutely no disgrace in finishing tied second behind the rampant South African at the Joburg Open yesterday as he picked off his second European Tour victory on successive Sundays.
Naturally, Darren Clarke will be a little frustrated not to have put Schwartzel under a little more pressure when the opportunity arose midway through the front nine of his final round on the East Course at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club.
Yet the positives by far outweighed the negatives for the 41-year-old Ulsterman. After shooting his lowest round score this century (last Thursday's sparkling, bogey-free 63), Clarke sustained his title-challenge until the final day and then applied a sensational fighting finish to make sure of a share of second place with South Africa's Keith Horne.
By following up a birdie three at 16 with a splendid chip-in for eagle at the par-five final hole for a closing 68, his fourth successive round in the 60s, Clarke is now assured of enough ranking points to break back into the world's top-100 today, a significant step just two tournaments into a season in which he is determined to regain Ryder Cup status.
Almost incidental is the €119,730 he banked, Clarke's biggest pay day since winning the 2008 KLM Dutch Open.
Schwartzel (25), an impressive winner of the Africa Open at East London last Sunday, was in a class of his own in his native Johannesburg as he romped to 23-under, six strokes ahead of Clarke and Horne, courtesy of a closing 66.
After matching his playing companion Clarke's 63 in the first round, Schwartzel kept the pedal to the metal on Friday (68) and Saturday (64).
Remarkably, he now has played his first eight competitive rounds of this year in a whopping 43-under-par and goes to this week's Abu Dhabi Championship hoping to become the first player since Seve Ballesteros in 1986 to win three tournaments in a row on the European Tour.
Schwartzel's performance over the weekend bears comparison with the Spanish great. He can be a little wayward off the tee but the South African's recovery play was almost on a par with Seve's as he racked up 26 birdies and had just one bogey and one double-bogey in 72 holes.
"It's been a fantastic two weeks for me. I played good last week and it definitely carried over," he said. "I played pretty much flawless golf and I don't know what it comes down to -- maybe a good positive frame of mind when you hit a bad shot.
"I'm leading the Order of Merit, but it's still early days and I think this will get me into The Masters. I'm very excited about that," added Schwartzel, today expected to attain his highest-ever world ranking, in the mid-30s, following his back-to-back victories, which bring to five his tally of tournament wins on the European circuit.
Schwartzel's only bogey of a memorable week came at the third yesterday. Starting the final round four behind the South African, Clarke halved that margin with a birdie at four but lost ground on his South African playing companion when his putting -- what else? -- let him down at six and seven.
First, the Irishman missed a six-foot putt to match Schwartzel's birdie at the long sixth before slipping up with a frustrating three-putt bogey at the seventh. A fleeting chance to turn the screw on his opponent had been lost but, typically, the Irishman kept on fighting and deserved credit for such a rousing finish.
Horne, meanwhile, recovered from a bogey at the first to post the best round of the day, a sweet 64. Q-School graduate Simon Thornton returned home €15,938 richer after a final-round 69 lifted him into a tie for 17th place on nine-under par. A closing 73 dropped Michael Hoey to a share of 25th (on seven-under) worth €12,480.