Clarke awaits the final field

 

Darren Clarke will discover tomorrow just how strong - or probably more to the point, how weak - the field will be for his defence of the Accenture World Matchplay Championship which takes place in Melbourne in a fortnight's time.

Although the tournament carries $5 million in prize-money, both the timing - from January 3rd-7th - and the location have proven unpopular with many of the world's top players. Already 17 players from the world's top 64 have decided not to compete while another 20 have been given until tomorrow's cut-off date for final entries to decide whether to play.

Entry to the championship comes from the world rankings but the huge number of defections has meant organisers could have to drop as low as 100 to ultimately finalise the 64-player field. Among those in the "undecided" category are Colin Montgomerie and David Duval.

The event has been badly hit already. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Jesper Parnevik, Nick Price and Sergio Garcia from the world's top 20 have confirmed they will be absentees. Woods, who celebrates his 25th birthday on December 30th, claimed he would have had to be en route to Australia on that day and travel through New Year's Eve if he was to arrive in time for two practice rounds. He was one of the first players to state he wouldn't be going.

The decision of so many Americans and Europeans to give the championship a miss has earned some sympathy from Australia's favourite son, Greg Norman, who made his views known some time ago in declaring he wouldn't be playing. "I don't think I'm going to be a yo-yo across the Pacific. I have done it enough for 20-odd years and I know what it takes out of you," he said.

Three Irishmen will definitely be competing, however. Clarke, who defends the title he won at La Costa earlier this year when he beat Woods in the final, will be joined by Padraig Harrington and also by Paul McGinley, who was called into the field last week.

In fact, Ireland's top three professionals can take some degree of satisfaction from their respective places in the official world rankings. The year end situation was finalised after last Sunday's Hong Kong Open - the last counting event of 2000 - after which Clarke was in 12th, Harrington in 24th and McGinley in 68th position. All three have made progress on their positions of a year ago.

Not surprisingly, the final rankings of the year show that Woods, who had 19 top-five finishes this year, stretched his lead over world number two Ernie Els. Woods tripled his points lead at the top of the rankings after winning 10 of the 22 official events he entered to finish with a 29.40 points average compared with 11.65 for Els and 11.20 for third-placed Duval.

Els moved up from fifth place a year ago to replace Duval was world number two while Vijay Singh, despite winning the US Masters, dropped two places from seventh to ninth.

Clarke's big win of the year was, of course, in the World Matchplay in La Costa but a solid year which saw him finish second in the European Tour Order of Merit enabled him to move from 19th place in the rankings this time last year up to 12th.

Meanwhile, England's Simon Dyson's win in the Hong Kong Open on Sunday - his third of the season on the Asian Tour - brought a significant bonus. As number one finisher on the tour's Order of Merit, the former Walker Cup player has been awarded a place in next year's American Express championship and exemption from final qualifying into the British Open.

Donegal man Connor Mallon has failed in his attempt to win his card on to next season's NGA Hooter's Tour in the United States. At a weather-marred qualifying school in Florida over the weekend, Mallon finished in 44th place with only the top-20 earning their cards. Dubliner Bryan Omelia earned his card when finishing runner-up in the California qualifying school the previous week.

Meanwhile, Faithlegg golf course in Waterford will again play host to the Irish Ladies Open on the European Women's Tour next season. In an expanded European circuit which will include tournaments in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, Faithlegg will stage the event on August 24th-26th next.