JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Darren Clarke struggled through a miserable nine holes of practice Tuesday.
Hmmm, maybe he’s ready to shine again at the PGA Championship.
Coming off the first major title of his career, Clarke arrived in the sweltering suburbs north of Atlanta looking to rekindle some of that British Open magic but insisting he’s still the same guy – claret jug and all.
“I would like to think it hasn’t changed me,” the native of Northern Ireland said. “Hope it won’t and don’t think it will.”
His schedule has certainly changed, though. After an all-night celebration at Royal St. George’s, he’s had to deal with a rush of media and sponsor commitments, in addition playing the Irish Open and the World Golf Championship event at Firestone.
“All I will say is that I’m still a little bit tired,” said the 42-year-old Clarke, one of golf’s oldest first-time major champions. “I’ve had no time off since the Open, so I’ll be looking forward to a couple of weeks off this week.”
Clearly, he could use the rest. Clarke missed the cut in Ireland and tied for 68th in a 76-player field at Firestone, so he hardly looks on top of his game.
Then again, he struggled through nine holes of practice two days before the start of the British Open, and that turned out just fine.
“I shall be spending quite a bit of time on the range trying to figure it out a little bit,” Clarke said, adding that his expectations “are exactly the same from what they were at the Open.”
This is nothing like Royal St. George’s, of course. Instead of temperatures in the low 60s and spurts of heavy rain, Clarke practiced Tuesday under a bright sun, the mercury climbing into the 90s, the humidity making it feel even hotter.
“Obviously, totally different conditions,” he said. “The heat is going to be a massive, massive factor this week.”
He’ll need some different shots, too.
At Royal St. George’s, Clarke mastered the links course by keeping the ball low. It wasn’t pretty, but it negated the gusting breezes off the sea. Landlocked Atlanta Athletic Club is the sort of course that turns up week after week on the PGA Tour (though longer at more than 7,400 yards). High, precision shots will be the norm at this major.
“I’ve just got to go to the range and work on my ball striking and hopefully get back to a level where I can control my ball flight,” Clarke said. “If I can do that, I’ll go and play and see how good my best is this week. If I can play my best, my best is good enough to contend and to win.”
The blistering Georgia summer could work against a player like Clarke, who’s a bit stout around the midsection. After winning the Open, he had vowed to go on a diet, but now says he will begin cutting back AFTER the PGA Championship.
“Obviously, I’m a finely turned athlete,” he quipped, “so it should not affect me that much.”
His victory at Royal St. George’s was immensely popular with the golfing public, on both sides of the Atlantic. Clarke lights up cigarettes on the course, loves to throw back a pint or two, and – like so many folks – has struggled to control his weight.
Plus, he dealt with personal tragedy: The death of his wife after a long battle with cancer. No wonder he hears shouts of encouragement nearly everywhere he goes.
“For some reason or another,” Clarke said, “the people seem to like me.”
He also learned a valuable lesson at the British Open, one that should serve him well the rest of his career.
“You never know what the game is going to give you. You never know what’s around the corner,” Clarke said. “Just never give up. Keep going, keep going, keep going. That’s what it taught me.”