Vintage Clarke hits the ground running
DELIVERANCE! Darren Clarke rediscovered the magic touch at the Joburg Open yesterday, posting a first-round 63 which hinted that 14 months of misery and frustration might be at an end for the 40-year-old Ulsterman.
Clarke wasn't flattered in the least by his best round on Tour this century and his lowest since shooting 60 in the second round of the 1999 European Open at The K Club.
After its fairways and greens had been softened by torrential rain early in the week, the West Course at Royal Johannesburg was ripe for the picking. Clarke and his South African playing companion Charl Schwartzel (25), the winner of last week's Africa Open, took full advantage, harvesting 18 birdies between them as they loped into a share of second place with another young home boy, JB Kruger, and English duo Simon Khan and David Lynn.
Johannesburg local Neil Schietekat took the lead with a scintillating 62, the best round of the 25-year-old's fledgling two-year career on the Sunshine Tour.
Clarke, the hero of Europe's victory at the 2006 Ryder Cup just six weeks after his wife Heather's death from cancer, has played with little consistency or confidence since his controversial omission from the team for Valhalla in 2008, despite two victories on Tour that season.
Though he put a nice run of results together through last autumn, Clarke endured further disappointment when he finished 61st in the inaugural Race to Dubai, just one tantalising place away from a berth at the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
Currently ranked 115th in the world, Clarke knows he must get 2010 off to a flying start if he's to play his way onto Colin Montgomerie's team at Celtic Manor next October. After his Trojan work of the past 12 months had largely gone unrewarded, yesterday's round is a real fillip.
The East Course is by far the most formidable of the two at Johannesburg, making the 65s shot there yesterday by England's Barry Lane and Danny Willett look all the more impressive.
Yet it is one of Clarke's favourite tracks in Africa. After playing three successive rounds on this monster in 11 under par as he finished in fourth place on his only previous appearance at the Joburg Open in 2008, he's relishing the next 54 holes.
Clarke revelled in good company yesterday. "I played with Charl in the first two rounds last week and he played great once again," he said, adding with a smile. "When he scored a couple of early birdies out there today, I decided I wasn't going to get left behind again."
The Dungannon man started smartly himself with birdies on the first two holes. He collected another three before the turn and still had neither a bogey nor a five on his card after completing the back nine in three-under par.
The highlight of Clarke's day was the immense, soaring shot he hit in to 12 feet at the par-five 15th. "For the first time ever, I put a rescue club into my bag and it certainly came in useful there," he said. "Usually, I'm a two or three-iron type but with all the rain that's fallen this week, I knew I'd need to play some long high shots."
Clarke narrowly missed the eagle putt there after leaving another (for birdie) on the lip at 14. Yet his Scotty Cameron putter served him well at 17, where the 20-footer for his final birdie dropped into the hole on its final roll.
"Overall, I played pretty well. I only missed two fairways," added Clarke, who completed a significant up-and-down from greenside rough for par at the last after a wayward drive had threatened to spoil the perfect day.
Schwartzel had 10 birdies on his card, including seven in a row through 11 before his reverie was shattered at the next when he four-putted from 30 feet for a double-bogey six.
Undeterred, the South African showed his true character by leaping back onto the birdie train at 13.
Michael Hoey was tied 41st after his 68 on the West Course. Simon Thornton compiled a one-under 70 on the East Course, where Niall Kearney posted a storm-disrupted 71, Gary Murphy shot a 73 and Peter Lawrie opened his year with a 74.
The Joburg Open,
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