SANDWICH, England -- It won't matter what happens over the next two days. Not really. Which isn't to say that eventual failure to win this 140th Open Championship at Royal St. George's would not be disappointing. Of course it would. But the painful ache of defeat would linger only a little and only briefly. For in his life Darren Clarke has known true misery and seen real physical anguish -- and losing a mere game on a golf course is neither. Not even close.
More than five years on from the tragic death of his wife, Heather, from breast cancer, such perspective might just make the 42-year old father of two a dangerous contender for a title he has twice before come close to claiming. Certainly, during the press conference that followed his second successive round of 68, he appeared more than relaxed at the prospect of further battle over the next 36 holes.
"Winning here would obviously mean an awful lot," he acknowledged. "I'm in a position I'm very pleased to be in and I want to keep getting better and better. If I do that, come Sunday, I will hopefully be right in the mix.
"But there's an awful long way to go. The course is so very tough and you can get a funny bounce at any time. When that is the case, any event is inevitably wide open. The weather forecast is very poor though. And I hope it is. I am quite looking forward to a battle."
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And so he should, if only because his younger compatriots, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, have recently shown that Northern Ireland is apparently the place to hail from when it comes to winning major championships.
"While their success hasn't made any difference to me at all, I am personally delighted for both of them," said Clarke, who withdrew from the BMW International Open in Munich last month so that he could attend McIlroy's victory party at Holywood Golf Club. "To have back-to-back U.S. Open champions from a small country like Northern Ireland is a massive achievement. I can't explain how big that actually is."
To make it three Ulster Grand Slam titles in 13 months would be even more substantial, of course, and McDowell for one has no doubts about Clarke's ability to get it done.
"Darren is a fantastic ball-striker," said last year's U.S. Open champion, who added a disappointing 77 to his opening 68 and missed the cut here. "And, having moved back to Portrush, he's spending a lot more time playing links golf. So nothing out here will surprise him. I wish him all the best for the weekend."
The big question is whether or not Clarke's notoriously fragile putting stroke will hold up sufficiently and allow him to compete and contend over the second half of what is, for anyone not born American, the most important event on the crowded golfing calendar.
Still, he is not short of confidence only two months on from what was his thirteenth European Tour victory at the Iberdrola Open in Spain. Asked to identify the best shot of the 68 he struck on a beautiful golfing morning here on the Kent coast, Clarke didn't hesitate.
"My little cut 7-iron into the last hole," he said, a wee smile spreading across that expressive face. "I hit it on a very brave line and it came off perfectly. I'm either very brave or very stupid. Frequently, I don't know which. But it was a shot I wanted to take on."
Their father's propensity for such "golf-speak" and his still broad Ulster accent combine to provide a source of some amusement for Clarke's two sons, Tyrone and Conor. They are not slow to "take the mickey," as they say in their father's homeland.
"The move back to Portrush has really worked out," says Clarke, whose fiancee is based in nearby Belfast. "I have my mates there and the boys are loving it. They are at the same school, alongside my sister's boys and that works great. Tyrone is his form captain.
"Their accents are really funny though, after being in England most of their lives. Tyrone pretends to be so very English. He says 'father' when he talks to me. Last year he called me and it went something like this:
'I've just finished playing in the medal. I shot 76 off the yellow tees. I made four birdies and my first hole-in-one.'
'Where did you have that?'
'It was on the seventh, 176-yards. I hit a little soft 6-iron, father.'
*At which point Clarke cracks up.
"That's him taking the piss out of his old man," he laughs. "So then he passes me to Conor, who is two years younger. He comes on and all he says is, 'what about ye?' In the strongest Northern Irish accent you can imagine. So they like to have fun with me."
Like we said, victory in this Open would be nice. But win-or-lose, for Darren Clarke, life will still be grand.
*-- John Huggan
(Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)