Clarke cutting an impressive figure as red-hot putter guides him through majestic minefield
AUGUSTA NATIONAL is heaven in the early morning as the rising sun throws long shadows across its green baize fairways and green keepers are busy sweeping the last few drops of moisture off its putting surfaces with long dew whips.
With little more than a cooling breeze whispering out of the west early yesterday, the most intimidating course in golf looked beautifully benign. It was an illusion.
Those polished greens were growing faster by the minute and several pins lay so crazily close to the edge you could almost hear them cackle.
You see, Augusta National never sleeps in Masters week.
The wind was expected to gust to a fearful 20mph in the afternoon but the early starters, Darren Clarke among them, were too busy picking their way through this majestic minefield to count their blessings.
For most, it became a grim stroke-by-stroke battle for survival, one which Clarke fought stoutly. A classy birdie three at 18, where the Ulsterman hit an eight-iron to three feet, put a seal of approval on the back-to-back rounds of 74 which gave him a fair chance of making the weekend at Augusta for the first time in three appearances since 2007.
Having resolved inevitable "timing issues" after losing 48lb over the winter, Clarke said: "I've been swinging it well recently but didn't take full advantage of some decent play on Thursday.
"I hit a few loose shots today but, for the most part, ground it out well."
You don't need to do too much wrong to rile this beast (the golf course, not the new, trim Clarke, who might have lost weight but seems to have found acceptance).
Significantly, that old bugbear, his putting, spared him considerable pain yesterday, though Clarke shot down any suggestion that Steve Stricker's counsel at the Shell Houston Open last Friday week was key to this, saying: "You know me, most things go in one ear and out the other.
"Chipping is so difficult around here, you're always going to leave yourself putts of six to eight feet to save par and I made my share today, which is satisfying."
He made a nice six-footer for birdie four at the second, followed up with an impressive two-putt from 45 feet across the spine of the treacherous par-three fourth, then expertly ran a little chip from the fringe up the steep slope behind the cup at five and back down to three feet before holing the putt to keep his card clean.
That little chip was masterful but there was no escaping punishment for Clarke after hitting his tee shot way right and into trouble on six and seven.
Some attributed his loose play there to a 'giddy-up' the three-ball of Stephen Gallacher, Clarke and Nick Watney received from a tournament referee on their way to the fifth green.
Yet no such excuses are necessary at Augusta, where the merest slip courts disaster. With the hole at the short sixth cut on the far left, Clarke had little chance of saving par after missing well to the right of the heavily sloping green.
He did well to escape with bogey at seven. Blocked out in the trees, he bunted his ball back onto the fairway, clumsily propelled the next into the front bunker with his wedge and then made the ticklish putt after his well-planned escape shot rolled down the back slope to five feet.
Similarly, Clarke holed from 10 feet to limit the damage to bogey at 11 after running a chip through the back of the green, made six out of Rae's Creek at 13, deftly potted an eight-footer to save par at 14, chipped and then putted nicely from six feet for birdie at 15 and made a circuitous two-putt for his three at 16.
The spell broke at 17, where he missed a par putt of six feet after going left and out of position off the tee and hitting his approach over the back, from where nobody returns unpunished.
Clarke appears to have turned the clock back a decade with his new svelte appearance, but the sight of him sinking putts with gusto at Augusta National yesterday was more striking.