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Clarke contrast

Darren Clarke
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SANDWICH, England – When Darren Clarke talks fondly of sports psychology staple Dr. Bob Rotella he refers to an “old friend,' a lifeline in a sea of competitive uncertainty. As the 42-year-old joked with fans on the first tee early Friday at Royal St. George’s it was easy to feel the same way about Clarke.

Before Graeme McDowell emerged from the Pebble Beach pack last June, before Rory McIlroy officially assumed the role of resident alpha male last month at Congressional, there was Clarke – as Northern Irish as Guinness and Shepherd’s Pie.

“It’s amazing. (Northern Ireland) has six tour players and there’s only about 15 people in the country,” Clarke’s manager Chubby Chandler said earlier this year.  “Darren led them. He was the guy who set the bar and came over here. G-Mac followed him. And Rory followed G-Mac.”

You remember Clarke, right? Six-foot-two, 200 pounds on a good day, 13-time European Tour winner and a Ryder Cup assassin with a ready smile framed perfectly by a face as red as the numbers he’s put up at St. George’s this week.

He didn’t put Northern Irish golf on the map, he just made it fun to watch. Much like he’s made the 140th playing of the Open Championship something much more than the sum of its parts.

Through two rounds and four seasons, or so it seems, Clarke is little more than a jovial face in the crowd here at the Reclamation Project Open. The race to the claret jug is nothing less than a struggle for redemption for the likes of Clarke and Thomas Bjorn.

Bjorn’s plummet began at St. George’s 16th hole nearly a decade ago when he walked into a cavernous pot bunker, needed three desperate swings to get out and watched someone named Ben Curtis win his Open. Clarke’s freefall didn’t have a defined beginning, but it has been just as difficult to climb out of.

As best anyone can tell Clarke’s nose-dive from world-beater to simply beaten began in 2006 when his wife, Heather, died of breast cancer. The widower with two children dropped to 43rd in European Tour earnings and completed his third year without a victory.

Drained by the loss, and maybe even the European team’s Ryder Cup victory at the K Club, his next season was even worse, missing the cut in more events than not (11 of 20) and falling to 138th in earnings.

The body was willing, but the mind, and eventually the putter, pushed back at every turn.

Clarke rebounded with two victories in 2008 and another earlier this year at the Iberdrola Open in Spain, but something wasn’t right, at least not until Wednesday when he reunited with his “old friend” Rotella.

“Dr. Bob, his thought process is very simple, and that seems to suit me very well,” said Clarke, whose bookend rounds of 68 at St. George’s have lifted him into a tie with Lucas Glover at 4 under.

On Friday Clarke was asked if he thought he could actually win the Open Championship, journalistically a lay-up question particularly considering his six top-25 finishes in the game’s oldest tilt. His wide-eyed answer was surprisingly short, “Absolutely.”

Maybe it’s Rotella, maybe it’s his fiancée, Alison Campbell – whom he met on a blind date that was set up by McDowell – maybe it’s his return home to Portrush after years of living in London. Whatever the tonic, Clarke, the forgotten European in the current crush of Continental dominance, has the look of a man who still belongs, even if the rest of us forgot.

And why wouldn’t he? He mentored McDowell as a young pro and McIlroy was a member of Clarke’s own junior program back in Northern Ireland. And now he’s watched quietly as two of the last four majors have been brought home to Ulster.

“It’s pretty massive odds,” McDowell said of the possibility of a third major champion from Northern Ireland in just over one year. “It is pretty amazing the way certain guys doing it can spur others on to do it.”

Ultimately, however, Clarke’s confidence may stem from the simple truth that more than just about anyone else in the Open field he possesses the unique skills to master a links course that promises to become harder if this weekend’s forecast holds.

Clarke said he made the move from England because he wanted his children to go to school in Northern Ireland, but the byproduct has been a steady diet of Royal Portrush’s predictably poor conditions. On Friday that was obvious when he referenced the unfavorable weekend forecast with a wry smile, “I quite look forward to (it).”

“I’ve been doing a lot of practicing in bad weather because that’s usually what we get at Portrush,” he smiled.

Whatever the reason for Clarke’s return to form the old swagger was unmistakable, a quiet confidence often masked by an engaging persona. On St. George’s 18th hole on Friday the man who lives for the pressure ofthe Ryder Cup was at his swashbuckling best, carving a 7-iron with the wind to 20 feet for a walk-off birdie.

When asked why he would attempt such a bold shot on Friday, Clarke grinned widely, “I’m either very brave or very stupid. I don’t know which one I am frequently.”

With that, the “old friend” was on his way and for a moment it almost seemed like he had never left.