Clarke ready to push for glory

First published in Golf

DARREN Clarke, as proud as anyone about what is already a golden era for Irish golf, has the chance this weekend to add another chapter to the remarkable story.

Three weeks after he pulled out of a tournament in Germany to celebrate Rory McIlroy's runaway US Open win, the 42-year-old shares the halfway lead in The Open with American Lucas Glover following a day that also saw Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the world's top two, both crash out.

Clarke has not had a top-10 finish in a major for a decade, but a second successive 68 at Royal St George's takes him into the weekend on four under par.

And with the two first day pacesetters, English amateur Tom Lewis and Dane Thomas Bjorn, having rounds of 74 and 72 respectively, it is the hero of the 2006 Ryder Cup who will occupy centre stage when he tees off tomorrow.

Clarke was unbeaten that week at The K Club in a match played just six weeks after his wife Heather lost her fight with breast cancer.

Now engaged to a former Miss Northern Ireland and back living in Portrush rather than Surrey, the father-of-two is old enough not to get carried away with the position in which he finds himself.

Fourteen years on from his runner-up finish at Royal Troon, he said after sinking a 20-foot birdie putt on the last: "Obviously this is only after two rounds - there is an awful long way to go yet.’’ Not for Donald and Westwood, however.

Donald, who hoped his four-shot victory in the Scottish Open would lead to his first major triumph, bogeyed the last four holes to miss by three on six over.

Westwood waited seven hours until nearly 8.30pm to learn that his four-over aggregate was one too many.

They must try again at next month's US PGA Championship in Atlanta, but have no further interest in what happens in Kent.

Clarke added: "I believe the forecast for the weekend is very, very poor. I quite look forward to that, but the course is going to play very, very tough.

"If that's the case, then the tournament is still wide open for an awful lot of players.’’ The fact remains, however, that he is two rounds from possibly joining a major club that includes not only McIlroy, but also their fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell and Dubliner Padraig Harrington, the man who got the ball rolling when he had back-to-back Opens and then a US PGA as well.

Clarke's round began with laughter.

"That was somebody whistling at me when I was bending over stretching,’’ he explained. "I said 'I hope that was a lady', but he whistled again, same guy. I'm doing something all wrong.’’ Not in his personal life, though. "I've got a wonderful fiancee. Alison is a great girl and instrumental in my getting my life back on track,’’ he added.

Clarke, lucky to be out in the calmer conditions on day two, owes his place in his 20th Open to taking the 30th and last exempt spot off last year's European Tour money list by less than £2,000.

A double bogey on the fourth, where a chip came back down a steep slope, was cancelled out by an eagle putt of around 80 feet three holes later.

Four birdies and three bogeys followed, but he had the lead in the clubhouse on his own for a mere 10 minutes. Glover was in the following group.

Lewis saw 61-year-old playing partner Tom Watson claim a hole-in-one at the sixth in the day's most electrifying moment, but, by scoring nine more than his lowest ever round by an amateur in the event, the 20-year-old from Welwyn Garden City dropped out of the top 10.

Bjorn is now joint third with Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, German Martin Kaymer and American Chad Campbell.

Most early eyes had been were on Young Tom and Old Tom - Lewis and five-time champion Watson.

Watson's ace with a four-iron was the 15th hole-in-one of his life, hopping in on the first bounce.

The 2009 runner-up - he would have been the oldest major champion by 11 years if only he had parred the final hole at Turnberry - continued to amaze with a 70. On two over he made his 24th Open cut and extended his own record as the oldest man to play all four rounds.

Lewis had a television camera in his face the moment he left the practice putting green and, not surprisingly in the circumstances, could not repeat his first-day heroics.

He bogeyed the final two holes, avoiding going out of bounds on the last only by hitting a post, but he is still in the title hunt.

"I think if you asked me that two days ago I would have taken it, but at this moment it doesn't feel so good,’’ he said.

Bjorn did well to limit the damage after a hat-trick of bogeys from the second.

"It wasn't the prettiest of days golf-wise, but I'll take where I stand in the championship right now,’’ he commented.

McIlroy remains a threat at level par after a 69 and Phil Mickelson too on one under.

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