Clarke's stunning 63 brings a win, but big prize evades him

 

Darren Clarke won the Volvo Masters yesterday, Colin Montgomerie topped the Volvo Rankings and Lee Westwood gained the kind of experience he could do without.

Europe's big three, who have dominated proceedings at Montecastillo this week, finished in possibly the least predicted fashion of all, with Clarke equalling the course record of 63 on his way to what was, but should not be, a rare win.

Montgomerie, a more prolific winner, finished third but did enough to extend his record run of ranking wins to six on the trot, while Westwood, who has won as many tournaments as the other two combined this year, ran up a quadruple bogey seven at the 14th, and eventually finished tied for 12th.

For Clarke this was an especially sweet moment. As he walked off the final green, cradling his 13-week-old son Tyrone, he could reflect not only that he had played brilliantly and won, but he had also beaten his close friend and stable-mate, Westwood, who had appeared to be leaving him behind.

Yesterday, though, Clarke left them all behind, seizing the moment as rarely, if ever, before. He went to the turn in 30, with four birdies and an eagle, and when he found himself at the top of the leader-board he did not for a second flinch. He came home in 33, for a total of 271, 17-under par, to win by two from Andrew Coltart and by three from Montgomerie.

It was a win that could be the making of the big Ulster-man. To his enormous frustration he has finished runner-up three times this season alone, while Westwood has been roaring away to five wins world-wide.

Indeed things got so bad for Clarke that he actually withdrew from the Belgacom Open in the first week of October for fear that if he got into contention and then failed to come through again, he would totally lose his head. He took a week's rest instead, spending time with Tyrone, which helped him realise that there are worse things in life than a double-bogey.

Yesterday he fully earned the accolade passed on by Montgomerie. "That was a world-class effort by Darren," he said. "He's a very, very talented player."

Montgomerie was pleased with himself, too. "The standard in Europe is improving all the time," he said, "and I've had to improve with it. That's 11 years in a row as a professional that I feel I've improved. I feel mentally tougher than ever before, and hopefully I've not played my best golf yet.

"I played down my desire to be European number one again at the start of the week, and really it was not so much a desire to be in that position as a reluctance to see anyone else in it. Nick Faldo told me that if he'd won it five times he'd want to win it six."

Faldo was something of an isolated figure this week, and yesterday was practising on the range as the others were winning things. His final round 75, for 289, left him tied for 36th. His five events in Europe, designed to win him enough Ryder Cup points to gain him a place in the squad, have yielded under £45,000 and 28th position in the points list.

Clarke was four-under-par after the first five holes yesterday, and while there are three shortish par four's in that stretch, it was the quality of shot that encouraged the man himself. "The birdies at four and five," said Clarke, "were tap-ins, and that's easier on the nerves than 20-footers."

He went on to hit his second at the 520 yards, all uphill, nine to 10 feet, and when that eagle putt went in he had a lead that he briefly shared with Coltart, but never lost.

The two men were level on 16-under as Clarke was on the 18th green and Coltart on the 17th. But the Irishman holed from nine feet on the last, the Scot missed from four feet on the penultimate hole, and Clarke had won the biggest title, and the most money - the £166,000 first prize and £120,000 bonus money for finishing second in the rankings - in his career.

The final rankings showed Montgomerie as winner with £993,077; Clarke next with £902,867 and Westwood third with £814,386.

Montgomerie began the day only one shot behind the overnight leaders, Westwood and the Australian Peter O'Malley, and in that position would normally have gone out, attacked the course and tried to win the tournament.

Yesterday was both different because of the overall desire to win the rankings. "I had three or four tournament scenarios going on in my head," said Montgomerie afterwards.

"It was nice to win the rankings because in a way this is the end of an era. The game is going global, next year there will be the very rich World Championship events influencing the money list and it won't be purely European money that makes you European number one."

Westwood was faltering before he was finally flummoxed at the 14th. On the green at the ninth, he three-putted, to fall back into a tie for fifth at that point and he simply was not hitting his irons close enough for realistic birdie chances. Eventually, with holes running out, he simply had to be aggressive, and that was the end of that.