Clarke hints at new dawn in sparkling Durban start
Changes to putter and physique put buoyant Ulsterman in mix with 69
DARREN CLARKE tripped the light fantastic at Durban Country Club, but shedding 40-plus pounds wasn't the only reason for the spring in the Ulsterman's step during his first round at the Volvo Golf Champions.
Naturally, not having to drag the equivalent of 20 two-pound bags of sugar around the course under a blazing South African sun was always going to give the 43-year-old a fillip.
Clarke was brimful of energy and bonhomie after signing for the impressive first-round 69 which lifted him into a tie for third on three-under, two shy of the lead held by Raphael Jacquelin.
Inevitably, Clarke was questioned at length about his svelte figure and the diet and conditioning programme which has seen him lose "nearly three stone" over the past three months.
He showed he hasn't lost his sense of humour as he disputed a description of his new regime as "radical", saying: "I wouldn't call it radical. I've still had some pints with my mates over Christmas. I haven't gone totally to the dark side!"
Yet finding a putter with which he could score consistently better would indeed be radical for Clarke, whose failure to furnish any top-10 finishes on the European or US Tour since winning the 2011 British Open can be attributed largely to his problems on the green.
Yesterday, albeit in only his first competitive round of 2014, there were encouraging signs that Clarke might have found his Excalibur in the shape of a new RAA putter designed and built from scratch for the Ulsterman by a fledgling firm in Lancashire.
"That was the first day out with it," the player confirmed. "I holed a nice putt on the fourth -- that was the first one I holed -- but I hit really good putts all day and kept scaring the hole.
"My golf from tee to green this past couple of years hasn't been that bad," Clarke went on. "My scoring has been due to not making anything at all on the greens. Make a couple of putts and the whole game changes."
According Colin Montgomerie, his playing companion Jacquelin "chipped and holed out fantastically well, which is what you have got to do to lead any tournament."
Yet the 39-year-old Frenchman's closest challenger, Louis Oosthuizen, who shot 68, and Clarke were at a significant advantage yesterday playing in the driving wind which whipped in off the Indian Ocean and across the course.
"I grew up in Mossel Bay where the wind is born and then goes out to the rest of the country," said Oosthuizen.
Meanwhile, Clarke admitted he smiled inwardly when he arrived at a course he's played countless times competitively and felt the breeze rising.
The Volvo Golf Champions, a €4m event contested this year with a 36-man field, offers European winners from 2013 and the Tour elite from further back the chance of a 72-hole kick-start to the new year.
Yet the windswept first five holes offered a torrid test to players still working off the Christmas turkey, making the golf Clarke played down that stretch appear all the more impressive. After hitting two sweet shots down the first, the Ulsterman comfortably two-putted for par at the first, then brilliantly chipped in for birdie two at the second after his tee shot landed 10 yards short of the green.
Clarke then recovered from a ballooning flop shot through the green to get down in two from the far fringe with his putter for a fighting par, before completing the save of the day from a difficult spot in the back of the right greenside bunker at four -- his 12-foot putt there was the one which hinted at a new dawn for the Northern Irishman.
In stark contrast, Padraig Harrington's patience was sorely tested by his putter as he played that opening stretch in two-over-par.
Yet, with the help of a few sharp words from caddie Ronan Flood, the Dubliner recovered his composure and signed for a fighting one-under-par 71 and a place in the top 12.
"Those first five holes are tight with the wind and I got off to a painful start, to say the least," said Harrington. He missed "a short one" for birdie at the first, three-putted for bogey at two, missed the green at five, hit a nice chip but missed the par putt.
"I was getting some early lectures off my caddie," he admitted. "Like, 'it's early in the year to be starting this'."
This episode and the positive effect Flood's words had on Harrington perfectly illustrated the strength of their relationship.
"Though I managed to hole just one putt all day, I stuck in there and my attitude was pretty good for the rest of the round," added the Dubliner.
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