Hamstrung Clarke has to give up on Masters this time

Rory McIlroy in upbeat form after second-place finish at the Texas Open

Justin Rose of England (L) and Jamie Donaldson of Wales walk to the sixth green during a practice round. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Justin Rose of England (L) and Jamie Donaldson of Wales walk to the sixth green during a practice round. Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters


While an ill-wind blew some misfortune Darren Clarke’s way and left the hamstrung golfer marooned in the Bahamas nursing an injury that has ruled him out of this 77th staging of the US Masters, the omens were a good deal rosier at Augusta National for the four other Irish player .

And, as players engaged in finalising their preparations, nobody had as much pep in their step as Rory McIlroy, who teed off – alone – from the first tee shortly after midday here.

McIlroy’s runner-up finish to Martin Laird in the Texas Open on Sunday had, in many ways, enabled him to emerge from a dark tunnel into glaring sunshine.

McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Pádraig Harrington – Major winners all – and British amateur champion Alan Dunbar make up the quartet of Irish players in the 93-man field, but Clarke’s tough times, which have seen him free-fall to 223rd in the latest world rankings, continued with an official announcement he had been forced to withdraw from the season’s first Major.

Clarke picked up the hamstring injury a fortnight ago bending for a drop shot playing tennis on a family holiday in the Abaco islands in the northern Bahamas.

A fitness test on the course in Abaco yesterday confirmed he couldn’t turn through shots and could only hit the ball some 90 yards in distance.

“I picked up a tear on my hamstring. It was just one of those freak injuries, which is really disappointing.

“I’ve done absolutely everything to be at Augusta: physio, ultrasound and icing. But I cannot physically turn through shots and there is no point in going to the Masters if you are not 100 per cent fit. I’m absolutely gutted not to be there,” said Clarke.

Clarke – whose British Open win of 2011 has given him a five-year exemption in the three Majors held in the United States – also suffered an injury ahead of last year’s Masters, where he played but missed the cut.

Groin strain
On that occasion, he sustained a groin strain; and it would subsequently rule him out of the US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Clarke has set a target of returning to action in the Ballantines championship in Korea later this month, an event on the European Tour.

By then, of course, the first Major champion of the year will have been crowned and, for sure, McIlroy was in upbeat form as he undertook a first practice round on the course having altered his itinerary to add in the trip to San Antonio.

It proved to be a wise move.

McIlroy yesterday started off alone, accompanied by his caddie JP Fitzgerald and coach Michael Bannon, but was joined on the second hole by Lee Westwood for the start of preparations in his quest for a third Major title of his career.

In claiming to be “pleased” with his game, the real significance of McIlroy’s Texas trip was he eliminated the “stupid mistakes” which had marred his play in the first three rounds in San Antonio and also at the previous week’s Houston Open.

“I feel like my game’s in really good shape,” said McIlroy. On transforming his form, McIlroy observed: “It doesn’t take long, just turn around and you’re off . . . at least that’s the case for me.

“I guess I was more hopeful than expecting going into the last couple of tournaments [in Houston and San Antonio] but I think I know now where my game is at and I’m happy with it.
“I’m really looking forward to [the Masters]. The plan was to get myself tournament ready, tournament sharp.

“ It was a bonus that I got into contention and had a chance to win.”

McIlroy preferred to get reacquainted with the course on his arrival here from San Antonio, but Harrington – in contrast – opted to spend most of his time on the range when he arrived at the course.

McDowell, too, spent most of his time yesterday on the range, whilst Dunbar – who is set to turn professional next week with the hope of taking up a number of sponsors invites on to the European Tour – played a practice round with US Open champion Webb Simpson.

Of the Irish quartet in the field, Dunbar is the only first-timer; although he could well do with infusing some of the spirit of another first-time Nicolas Colsaerts. Making his first appearance in the Masters, the Belgian, a key player for Jose Maria Olazabal in last year’s Ryder Cup, said:“Certain players come here and look at this place and feel like they have the game that suits it. And I definitely think that I do  . . . . I like my chances.”

Yet, Colsaerts only had to look around the course, the range and the putting green to be keenly aware that the intent and focus of the every player in the field is different this week.

The Masters has a way of concentrating the mind, of creating a buzz like no other.