DARREN CLARKE has been a true friend and mentor to Rory McIlroy at Royal St George's this week.
Sure he even rose before dawn on Wednesday to join the young US Open champion for a practice round in which they took the princely sum of £20 each from South Africa's Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen.
Today, Clarke and his protégé go into the weekend at The Open Championship as rivals for the €999,540 first prize on offer at Sandwich and, of course, the most famous trophy in golf, the Claret Jug.
Three days ago, few would have dreamed possible this astonishing transformation from practice round buddies to hot contenders. Least of all Clarke, who only found the key to his remarkable redemption at the Open on Wednesday evening, when he bumped into "an old friend," Dr Bob Rotella.
Clarke has credited world-famous sports psychologist Rotella with flicking the on-switch in his putting and making it possible for the 42-year-old to surge into a share of the tournament lead on four-under-par alongside bearded American Lucas Glover with a pair of splendid 68s.
Not since Thursday and Friday at Troon in 1997 has Clarke (42), led the British Open, while the most recent of his three top-10 finishes in 19 previous appearances at golf's oldest Major came 10 years ago when he tied third with Miguel Angel Jimenez behind David Duval at Lytham.
Ironically, Jimenez is tied third with Chad Campbell, Martin Kaymer and Thomas Bjorn on three-under-par after 36 holes in Sandwich.
Yet most eyes will automatically seek out McIlroy on the leaderboard and, at 19th place on level par, the 22-year-old is very much in contention in a tightly-packed field at one of the most open Major championships in recent years.
After grinding out a one-over-par 71 in the worst of the weather on Thursday, McIlroy achieved his stated target of 69 yesterday.
A phenomenal par save out of a cavernous greenside bunker at the toughest 18th hole on the Open roster gave the Holywood star a phenomenal morale boost going into a weekend in which stormy weather is threatened, especially tomorrow.
"That was a huge boost for me," McIlroy conceded. "I've now put myself into a good position. It would have been nicer to be a couple better, but I'll take that going into the weekend. I'm very happy with my position within striking distance of the leaders."
McIlroy seemed to rekindle some of his Congressional magic with sweet birdies at six and seven yesterday, but a dropped shot out of the hay, after missing the green left on eight, showed that his ball-striking is not quite at the same stellar level as it was during last month's US Open.
Finding momentum a lot harder to come by in tricky winds and on rapidly-hardening and intensely-quirky greens, McIlroy had picked up a couple more birdies and two more bogeys as he played 18.
And his prospects of finishing in par seemed bleak as his approach shot plunged into that deep dark bunker.
"When I walked up to the bunker and saw the lie, it wasn't very good," said McIlory. Yet all the practice he's done in the replica Road Hole bunker on the short game facility at his home in Moneyreagh, Co Down, paid off as he blasted the ball out of the sand and over the sandy 'cliff' face.
The ball rolled out to about 12 feet and McIlroy drained the putt, much to the delight of the thousands packed into the vast grandstands. Their roar was probably still echoing in his ears as he headed for bed last night.
What a boost!
McIlroy is thrilled to see Clarke at the head of the field. "It's brilliant," he said.
"This sort of golf really suit's Darren's game. He's grown up on links and he likes to play different shots.
"You've got to manage your game very well and he's good at doing that, hitting different shots and changing the trajectory."
Though McIlroy conceded that wild weather on the links would be less likely to suit him than Clarke, but a little steel crept into the young man's voice: "Darren's doing a bit better than me at the moment, but I'm planning on changing that."
The prospects of a sixth Major title for Ireland in just 17 championships since Padraig Harrington won the 2007 Open at Carnoustie is very much alive, even if there are several accomplished Major-winners within striking range.
They include 2009 US Open-winner Lucas Glover, reigning PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany, Augusta Master Charl Schwartzel and, of course, Phil Mickelson.
In the absence of World No 1 Luke Donald and No 2 Lee Westwood, a horde of other hunger young men are bidding for their first taste of Major glory this weekend, including Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia, who is tied with McIlroy on even par.
Yet Clarke, who spent last winter practicing in rough weather at Royal Portrush after moving back home in September, is the most practised links exponent of them all.
He was in ripe good humour after his spirited round yesterday which included an eagle at the par five seventh, five birdies, three bogeys and a double-bogey six at the fourth.
After sinking a 10-foot putt for birdie on three, that untidy double-bogey must have been a shock to his system.
After missing the green right at the former par five, Clarke failed with an attempt to chip his ball up the slope to the green and looked on in anguish as it rolled back to his feet.
Any rise in his blood-pressure was quickly eased, however, when he rattled an incredible 100-foot putt from just off the front of the seventh green against the pin and it dropped into the cup for an eagle three. Up went his right fist as the crowd roared and he'd repeat that gesture as he landed a sweet six-footer for birdie at the next. The Clarke bandwagon was well and truly back on the road.
"Of course I believe I can win this weekend," Clarke said stoutly when the leading question was put to him afterwards. "I believe the forecast is very, very, very poor, which I quite look forward to. But if the course plays very tough, this tournament is wide open."
Hilariously, Clarke discovered after this round that he'd one thing in common with Jimenez this week. As he bent over during his warm-up on the first tee on Thursday, the Ulsterman had heard a wolf whistle in the crowd.
"I said to the crowd: 'I hope that was a lady,' but the guy whistled again.
"Clearly I'm doing something all wrong," Clarke said, laughing when he heard Jimenez had been whistled at by the same individual as he did his stretches on the tee yesterday.
"Clearly Miguel is an athlete, just like myself," he quipped.
Well, a lot more people fancy Clarke now -- for the Claret Jug!
The british Open,
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