Clarke shrugs off double disaster
DRAWING on his morale-boosting performance in last weekend's Irish Open, Darren Clarke certainly showed the right stuff down the notorious finishing stretch at Le France National yesterday.
Clarke hadn't made a cut all year before Royal Portrush but he displayed the resilience one expects of a reigning Major champion during his first-round 70 at the French Open.
The back-to-back sixes Clarke took on the 14th and 15th holes might have knocked the wind out of him a few weeks back, but the 43-year-old shrugged off these two setbacks and a late-afternoon downpour to post two fine birdies in the closing three holes.
It was encouraging, as this is Clarke's final competitive outing before defending the Claret Jug the week after next at Royal Lytham and St Annes.
Tied 20th on one-under with Lee Westwood and Shane Lowry, among others, Clarke was five off the pace set by Swedish journeyman Christian Nilsson (33) with a splendid 65 before lunch.
The majority of those in close touch with the lead played yesterday morning, the exceptions being Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, David Lynn and Federico Colombo, who clambered into a tie for fifth on four-under with fine 67s as the rain made this long and difficult course even tougher.
Two wayward approach shots landed Clarke in trouble at the gruelling 607-yard 14th, where he made bogey six, and the treacherous 399-yard 15th, where his nine-iron approach from the left intermediate rough came down short in the water, leading to an ugly double-bogey.
Yet his response was inspirational as he went within inches of holing his 175-yard tee shot at 16 before draining the five-footer for birdie.
After hitting a fabulous five-wood all over the flag on his way to a facile par at 17, he then holed from 24 feet for one of only a dozen birdies yesterday on the exacting 18th hole.
Among the many reasons Le France National, just south-west of Paris, was chosen as venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup is its formidable closing stretch, and it was encouraging to see this usually volatile Ulsterman keep his sang so impressive froid there.
Westwood showed the cool confidence we have come to expect of him as he rebounded from a horror start.
Four-over through six holes, including a double-bogey six at 15, the world No 2 ground out five birdies in his final 12 holes. He even walked into the water in socks and shoes at nine, his last, to play his second shot on the way to a soggy but satisfying par-five.
Lowry was two-over after his first seven holes on the back nine but steadied the ship impressively and picked up three birdies on his way home.
Graeme McDowell's final tournament before the British Open got off to a grim start as he took double-bogey at 10, followed by a birdie at 11 and another dropped shot at 12 ... so a level-par 71 represented a reasonable day's work.
Peter Lawrie (73) and Gareth Maybin (76), not two of the longest hitters on Tour, dallied too often for comfort in the deep, cloying rough off the tee.
Damien McGrane (75) missed too many greens, while a wayward Michael Hoey (76) struggled with an unruly putter. With the cut expected to fall at two-over, McGrane, Maybin and Hoey certainly need to don their shooting boots today to make it through to one of the more lucrative weekends on the European Tour.
Live, Sky Sports 1, 2.30