Clarke determined to be back for the Irish Open at Portrush


GOLF: LOOKS CAN be deceptive, and Darren Clarke – dressed in a vivid pink jumper – looked the picture of health at Royal Portrush Golf Club yesterday as the countdown started in earnest towards the Irish Open, which will be held at the famed links on June 28th-July 1st.

Yet, a troublesome groin injury has dictated the British Open champion won’t hit a shot in anger, or in competition, until then. The injury may have forced his withdrawal from next week’s Scandinavian Masters and, more pertinently, the following week’s US Open in San Francisco, but it hasn’t dulled his sense of humour.

“I’d probably play in a zimmer frame if I had to,” quipped Clarke, adding: “No, hopefully I will be fine. I’ll do everything I can to be fit and ready for playing here.”

He added: “I’ve been playing through a bit of pain since Houston (the Shell Open on the US Tour) and I’m not used to being injured. It was one of those sort of things, because I haven’t been playing so well, I wanted to keep on playing. But enough is enough, I (need to) take a bit of time off. I’ve got to draw a line under it and try and get myself fit to play.”

The return of the Irish Open to Portrush – or, as the local council would have you believe, the golfing capital of the world given its status as home to both Clarke and 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell – is one Clarke has looked forward to for many a long day.

It was on this links he learnt how to shape and craft shots in the wind, and where he developed a touch which enabled him to win big tournaments all around the globe, two World Golf Championships and of course that long-awaited Major in the British Open at Sandwich last July.

An Irish Open title, though, has eluded him. What would it mean if he were to win here? “It would be right up there,” he responded, and especially so if it were achieved on a links he started playing as an 11-year-old in the evenings with his father, Godfrey, because the green fee was cheaper as the sun went down.

These days, his house is only a minute’s drive away and he is a long-time honorary member, with his British Open gold medal housed in a display cabinet alongside that of 1947 Open champion Fred Daly.

Of the links, Clarke said: “It has stood the test of time, albeit with a few new tees, but nothing has been done all that much with the greens. And the course is very natural. It’s one of the best layouts of any links you’ll find in the world. It’s tough but fair. You can get some that are tough and some that are fair but you rarely get the two together.”

Ticket sales for the championship have been exceptionally strong, and a ceiling of 27,000 has been placed on each day from a crowd and safety viewpoint but also to ensure those in attendance enjoy the experience.

The prize fund – of €2 million – is, according to Clarke, “not to be sniffed at”. He said: “It’s tough times, we all know that. You

look at how 3 came in, pushed the prize fund up to possibly unrealistic terms at the time, now what we have is a culmination of sponsors getting behind. I think we’ve done unbelievably well to get it to what it is now. What we have right now is a wonderful achievement.”

Indeed, a number of associate sponsors have gotten on board. Heineken and Ballygowan were yesterday announced as the latest to back the event, joining Emirates, Dale Farm, Moy Park, BMW, Brewin Dolphin and Bushmills.

All four of Ireland’s recent Major champions – Clarke, McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Pádraig Harrington – are confirmed to play, along with the US PGA champion Keegan Bradley and former British Open and US PGA champion John Daly.

What’s more, Clarke is one of those sure the RA, who run the British Open, will be keeping a close eye on its successful staging.

“I think this is obviously a stepping stone towards the bigger goal of getting the Open back again. I know how much work everyone is putting in to make this as successful as possible. It’s not the easiest golf course to get people around, infrastructure-wise, but the tour have done a wonderful job and. I wouldn’t be so foolish as to say the RA won’t be paying attention because I’m sure they will.

“But knowing Royal Portrush and everyone involved here, they will be doing everything to make this tournament go as smoothly as possible and I’m sure the Monday after the Irish Open the RA will take a look and say, ‘that was a properly run tournament, we’ve got to take another serious look at taking the Open there’.”

The British Open was last staged at the links in 1951, when Max Faulkner won.