Clarke chasing morale booster
THE balance of power swings back to the US Tour with a vengeance on California's picture-postcard Monterey Peninsula today as Phil Mickelson leads a top field, including Padraig Harrington, into action at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
After its annual three-week sojourn in the desert sun, when more world-ranking points customarily are on offer to those playing in the European Tour's 'Middle East Swing' than in corresponding events in the States, the old order will be restored this weekend.
While seven of the world's top 25 feature on the AT&T timesheet, homeland hero Jeev Milkha Singh, at No 59, was the highest-ranked player to tee it up in this morning's first round of the Avantha Masters at the DLF Golf and Country Club in New Delhi.
Yet as Harrington, just two rounds into his 2010 campaign, continues to knock the ring-rust off his clubs in California, the modest Indian event offers far brighter prospects of a first Irish victory on the world's major tours since Shane Lowry's stunning success at last May's '3' Irish Open.
Darren Clarke is Ireland's headliner in New Delhi and were he to manage his first win since the KLM Dutch Open in August 2008 and his 13th in all on the European Tour, it'd serve as a massive morale-boost for the Ulsterman as he bids for a place at next October's Ryder Cup.
The problems he had with his putter on the back nine in Dubai last Saturday, for example -- when it failed what Clarke euphemistically described as "a flexibility test" (over his knee) -- revealed the 41-year-old's confidence to be as brittle as the offending club's shaft.
Eighteen months later, one still wonders how much easier golf might have been for Clarke had Nick Faldo considered his two Tour victories in 2008 worthy of a captain's pick for Valhalla. The gregarious Irishman finished second in Johannesburg last month, but only a win will restore him to his pomp.
Clarke certainly wasn't the only player to find the Dubai greens a little difficult to decipher last weekend and, if anything, the grain in India is even more inscrutable, suggesting why Singh is a worthy favourite on the 7250 yards, par-72, Arnold Palmer design this weekend.
Obviously, the 38-year-old Indian would like to mark the recent birth of his son with a win. Might he name his first-born Vijay, the Hindi for 'victory', if he comes up trumps on Sunday? Perhaps not!
Another vastly experienced home player, Shiv Kapur, who finished fifth when the Johnnie Walker was played at DLF, or China's Ling Wen-chong, who won the Indian Open here on the same course later that year, know their way around this place.
Yet Lowry cannot be counted out. Though disappointed to miss the cut in Dubai after shooting his only two over-par rounds this year, Clara's champion had a fruitful weekend working on a few minor flaws in his game and flew to New Delhi on Monday quietly confident of making an impact this weekend.
Gareth Maybin (29) is another self-assured young man with the golf game and the gumption to claim his first European Tour win should the opportunity arise, though he, Clarke, Lowry and Gary Murphy will have to steer clear of the infamous Delhi-belly to have any chance.
Harrington, meanwhile, could have no better tournament format in which to set aside the swing thoughts which always clutter his mind at this time of the year.
Starting today on the glorious Spyglass Hill, the Dubliner plays with good friend JP McManus in a fourball with Retief Goosen and his amateur partner Dermot Desmond in this precursor to Europe's Dunhill Links.
Ireland's triple-Major champion was unhappy with his short game and a perplexing tendency to hit the ball right with his irons as he missed the cut at last week's Northern Trust Open.
However, few professionals are better equipped temperamentally than Harrington for the marathon six-hour rounds he's likely to play at Spyglass, Pebble Beach and, new course on the rota, Monterey Peninsula ... even if Mickelson is a three-times winner of this title.
Sadly, Paul McGinley failed in his bid to recover from knee surgery last December in time to accept an invitation to play at Pebble Beach and has been forced to postpone his return to competitive action for another month.
Avantha Masters, Live, Sky Sports 1, 9.0am
AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, live, Sky Sports 2, 8.0pm