Stage set for Clarke to ignite campaign
EVERYTHING appears to be in place for Darren Clarke as he bids to rekindle his Ryder Cup career in Johannesburg this weekend - now he must pull it all together.
Clarke played better and putted with much more aplomb at East London last week than his tie for 28th place at the Africa Open suggested.
A few loose shots here and there cost Clarke dearly but that can be attributed to ring rust on the 40-year-old Ulsterman's first outing of the new year on a tight and treacherous course.
This week's challenge could hardly be more different. The East and West courses at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington Golf Club were long enough already before being doused by torrential rain in recent days.
Clarke gets good vibes on both of them after finishing tied fourth, just two strokes outside the three-man playoff on his only previous appearance at the Joburg Open in 2008, especially the East, which he describes as "fantastic, one of the best courses in South Africa".
Clarke tees it up on the West Course today in a marquee group that includes last Sunday's winner and pre-tournament favourite Charles Schwartzel (25) of South Africa, ensuring a sizeable crowd and a good atmosphere.
Frankly, all the ingredients appear to be there for Clarke, a reasonable each-way bet at 25/1, to get in the mix.
Five other Irishmen play in Johannesburg, including Walker Cup hero Niall Kearney, delighted to get a second sponsor's invite in successive weeks after his European Tour debut at East London was undermined by a stomach bug.
Kearney thoroughly enjoyed having his dad, Joe, caddie for him for the first time at the Africa Open but he'll employ a local in Johannesburg, giving his father the opportunity to enjoy the hospitality of the salubrious clubhouse this week.
Caddies are denied admission to the clubhouse on the Sunshine Tour, a vestige of less liberal times in South Africa, and no exceptions are made, not even for a player's relatives. "It was no big deal," says Kearney with a nonchalant shrug. "That's just the way they do things here."
Dubliner Kearney (21) who narrowly missed out on his card at Q-School last November, is joined in Johannesburg by graduates Gary Murphy and Simon Thornton.
Like Kearney, both Murphy and Thornton missed the cut at East London but must finish in the top-10 on Sunday to have any chance of playing in next week's Abu Dhabi Championship or either of the other two events on Europe's upcoming Middle East Swing.
Dubliner Peter Lawrie opens his 2010 campaign in Johannesburg, while reigning Portugal Open champion Michael Hoey hopes, like Clarke, that playing all four rounds at the Africa Open will have knocked the cobwebs out of his game.
Shane Lowry's hopes of warming-up for Abu Dhabi on the Algarve with coach Neil Manchip this week were scuppered last Saturday when their flight from snow-bound Dublin Airport to Portugal was cancelled.
So, in a quick change of plan, Clara's Irish Open champion decided to fly out to Dubai today instead, where he'll probably run into former Irish amateur team-mate Rory McIlroy on the practice facilities at Jumeirah Golf Resort, venue for last November's Dubai World Championship and available year-round to European Tour members.
All four reigning Major champions, Stewart Cink, Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover and YE Yang, are prominent among the 20 players who stay in Hawaii for this weekend's Sony Open, the first full-field event on the US PGA Tour's 2010 schedule.
Geoff Ogilvy, the winner of last Sunday's 28-man SBS Championship, and Paul Casey have wisely taken this week off as they look forward to next week's event on the other side of the planet in Abu Dhabi, where the Englishman defends his title.
Casey's compatriots Justin Rose, Luke Donald and Brian Davis will open their US campaign at Waialae and they'll be joined in Honolulu by fellow Europeans Jesper Parnevik, Daniel Chopra and Nationwide Tour graduate Henrik Bjornstad of Norway.
The Joburg Open,
Live, Sky Sports 2, 8.0 & 12.0