Friday 17 November 2017

First cut is the sweetest for happy Clarke

Karl MacGinty

DARREN CLARKE has been the perfect host at the Irish Open.

Earlier this week, for example, he presented Jeev Milkha Singh with a bottle of special Bushmills single malt whiskey, while Gregory Bourdy yesterday thanked Clarke for priceless advice which helped propel him to the head of the field through 36 holes.

Yet Clarke did himself a really big favour on the Dunluce Links yesterday as a sweet second-round 69 eased the 43-year-old Ulsterman through the halfway cut at a tournament for the first time in 2012.

It's impossible to overstate the significance of this achievement for the Ulsterman.

As Honorary Ambassador to Royal Portrush, Clarke would have been tortured not to tee it up today and tomorrow as such a memorable championship comes to a climax at his local club.

More importantly, this weekend is likely to serve as a massive watershed in a career which climaxed with last July's British Open Championship victory at Sandwich, but has been in a head-spinning crash dive ever since.

Incredibly, Clarke hasn't played on Saturday or Sunday at a tournament since the Cadillac World Golf Championship in March at Doral, where there was no cut.

His only other taste of the weekend action in 10 events played in 2012 came at the Volvo Champions in January.

Of course, a groin injury sidelined him for a few weeks, forcing him to miss the US Open and as he counted the blessings of that enforced break from the game, Clarke actually solved the riddle of his perplexing form.

That sojourn was "massively important" Clarke agreed, adding: "I needed to get away, I needed to have a little bit if a break. I've had a wonderful time in recent weeks in Portrush.

"I've spent very little time here since last July. I've been away on the road all the time and I just wore myself down and got tired. Consequently, I made silly mistakes. Despite not playing too badly, I was taking too many shots. So, my injury has been a blessing in disguise.'

At four-under-par, eight off the pace set by Bourdy, his victory prospects may not be great. However, the support of his friends and neighbours over the next two days is likely to repair and fully restore Clarke's confidence in time for his defence of the Claret Jug at Lytham in three weeks time.

Another player who loped into the weekend on four-under is 2009 Irish Open Champion Shane Lowry (25) whose 68 yesterday certainly helped dispel any self doubt which arose during his recent run of four missed cuts in five events.

"Relieved is a good word for it," the Clara man admitted. "It would have been very disappointing to miss the cut here.

"You know, every week I feel like I'm in a position where I need a few good holes to make the cut and haven't been doing it. Golf is quite different when you're on the cut mark on a Friday than at the weekend. It's mentally tough and I just haven't been pulling it off recently.

"I have been struggling and can't put my finger on what's wrong. I've spoken to my caddie, Dermot Byrne and coach Neil Manchip about it. I've been playing nicely and making lots of birdies, but throwing a few silly double-bogeys in there."

Now Lowry and Clarke have beaten golf's guillotine, they'll surely enjoy this weekend in paradise.

Irish Independent

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