Majestic Clarke on top of the world

 

Golf's elite at home and abroad made way yesterday for a new arrival when Darren Clarke captured the $1 million top prize in the Andersen Consulting Matchplay Championship here at La Costa. With a performance of astonishing control and quality, the 31-year-old gained a decisive 4 and 3 victory over no less a figure than Tiger Woods in the 36-hole final.

Having been on the receiving end of 12 birdies in the 33 holes played, the world number one was moved to admit afterwards: "To be honest, Darren just flat outplayed me today. I think he missed only one fairway, while I just couldn't quite hit the shots the way I wanted to. I just wasn't able to put pressure on him."

Victory placed Clarke firmly alongside two legendary Irish figures of the game. In future, he can be held in similar esteem to fellow Ulsterman Fred Daly, the country's only winner of the British Open, and to Christy O'Connor Snr, whose 24 European Tour wins included a world record £25,000 cheque for the John Player Classic in 1970.

But it's the $1 million which really captures the imagination. For Woods, it would be no more than his regular appearance fee for a tournament outside his native shores. For Clarke, however, it set him apart, not only in the history of Irish sport, but as the most lucrative winner on the European Tour.

What would Clarke do with the money, given that he is already the owner of two Ferraris and two BMWs? "Spend it," came the emphatic reply. "It won't be lying around for long."

Butch Harmon, who coaches both players but for whom Woods represents a major financial investment, understandably found it impossible to maintain a detached view of events. "It was very much a mixed day for me in that I felt so happy for Darren but really sad for Tiger," he said.

For his part, Clarke was remarkably composed about his achievement. "Tiger was always going to be a tough opponent and it's a fantastic feeling to have played so well against him," he said. "I got used to matchplay, growing up in Ireland and after some indifferent results as a professional, I now feel comfortable with it again."

The key to the opening 18 holes from Clarke's standpoint was some stunning putting on the front nine, where he needed the blade only 10 times. He got up and down from a greenside trap for a half in birdie at the second; holed from four feet for a win in birdie at the fourth and chipped into the hole from off the back of the green to go one up two holes later.

But as we almost expected he might, Woods struck back immediately when a four-footer found the target for a winning birdie at the next. So they were level, and they remained that way for the rest of the round.

Though Woods claimed afterwards that they never talked, there was in fact, a certain warmth between the players at that stage. For instance, when Woods declined to concede an 18-inch putt for a half on the short 14th, Clarke inquired with a smile: "Are we playing medal?"

Eventually, Clarke might have claimed a lunchtime lead but a four-footer for a win on the 18th, slipped past the target. "I misread it," he said at the time. "Neither of us could make the necessary putts on the back nine to get away from each other."

Though Clarke had grafted wonderfully to maintain parity, one sensed the battle had begun in earnest when they went to the first tee second time around.

Weighing 18st 7lbs, there was the question of Clarke's fitness. As an American voice in the crowd was heard to remark: "I didn't know a fat man could walk so far."

But Clarke's manager, Andrew Chandler, put the weight issue into perspective afterwards when he said: "Darren is clearly not fit, but he's very strong." So it was that the Tyroneman was ready for an expected charge from Woods in the afternoon.

In the event, the world number one made his intentions abundantly clear when he smashed a huge drive down the 19th, fully 50 yards beyond his opponent. It meant that Woods was hitting only a soft wedge to the green whereas Clarke was hitting a full eight iron. But its impact was scuppered when Clarke proceeded to hole a 15-foot putt for a winning birdie to claim the honour for the first time since the seventh in the morning.

The fact that Woods happened to draw level with a birdie at the long 20th, proved to be only a temporary set-back. From there on, Clarke took almost complete control. Driving the ball beautifully, he was content to be some distance behind Woods in the knowledge that when he delivered a quality approach iron, the pressure was firmly on the favourite.

And so it proved to be at the fourth, where a seven iron was followed by a winning eight-foot putt. Even more impressive was a majestic, four-iron approach at the 446-yard fifth, where he holed a 10-footer for another win. Clarke then went three up at the short seventh where he holed a 12-footer.

Clarke sunk yet another splendid putt, this time of 10 feet, to go four up at the eighth. It meant that from the last seven holes of his semi-final victory over David Duval to that point, he had shot 15 birdies in 33 holes against the two best players in the world.

Needing only 13 putts for an outward journey which he covered in 31 strokes to be three up, Clarke steadfastly refused to look to the finishing line. Woods, meanwhile, prowled menacingly around the greens, like a grandmaster coming to grips with a chess conundrum. He knew he was running out of holes.

Ironically, the ultimate killer blows were two attempts at a bunker recovery on the long 30th, which he lost to a par. Two holes later Clarke had become not only a million-dollar-man, but the 14th ranked player in the world.

As the Americans like to say, it was, indeed, a great day for the Irish.