Clarke warms up for Augusta in Algarve


Two players who are rather miffed they have had invitations turned down for important US Masters practice find themselves warming up for Augusta at Penina on the Algarve today.

But both can shrug off their disappointment this week, because they have more than reasonable chances of lifting their first Portuguese Open titles to build up their confidence in Europe instead of America.

For fans of Seve Ballesteros, that he has never lifted a Portuguese championship may come as some surprise. This national open title is one of the few which does not grace the Ballesteros record book.

For Darren Clarke's fans, it is hardly surprising, given how brief his career has been. Clarke arrived in Penina - the Algarve course chosen at almost the 11th-hour for this event after Aroeira near Lisbon suffered bad weather - following a good start to his 1998 campaign in Dubai and Qatar.

He would have liked to have transferred his good form to America this week to build up for Augusta, following up with the event which he has go into, the TPC next week at Sawgrass in Florida.

But try as they might, his management company could get into Bay Hill only the talented young Englishman, Lee Westwood. There was no place for others in the stable. That included Clarke.

So, tuning up for Augusta will have to be here at the tree-lined course where he practised 10 years ago with the Irish amateur team.

"I've got to admit to being a little disappointed at not getting into Bay Hill," admitted Clarke after shooting a one-under-par 72 in yesterday's pro-am. "It's obviously good to be able to practice out in America and get acclimatised early.

"But this is a great course, so I suppose it makes no difference. I remember the last time I came here it was a really good layout. We trained here for a week with the Irish squad.

"I'm playing quite well, so I hope it can be a good week before going over to America."

Clarke will play Sawgrass and then miss the New Orleans event the week before the Masters - despite getting an invitation - to get to Augusta early to soak up the atmosphere of the place, so as not to be overawed when push comes to shove. He plans to arrive Friday and then "play with people who've got experience of the place".

While Clarke is disappointed at not getting a Bay Hill invitation, then it is the following week which has passed Ballesteros by.

Seve misses the TPC and has to do his warming up in New Orleans. But first he wants to pick up one of the few titles which has eluded his remarkable career record.

"I asked for an invitation to the TPC," said Ballesteros, "and I even talked to Tim Finchem (the US Tour's commissioner), but he just told me to wait and see. There was no invite, though, and no explanation. The TPC is a great tournament and they have great practice facilities, but I guess I have to play a little better to get an invitation. Maybe next year."

Eamonn Darcy's eternal complaint, like Ballesteros, is a bad back. And even a cortisone injection last week has not relieved it. He will hope to stay the course this week.

Christy O'Connor Jnr is in the Penina field, as is last week's first round leader, Des Smyth, looking to build on his 64 in Agadir. Raymond Burns, Francis Howley, David Higgins and Cameron Clark make up the Irish contingent.