Top two rivals to find Clarke rested and ready


It's indicative of a wickedly poor season that David Higgins has failed to get into the Smurfit European Open at The K Club where 14 of his fellow-countrymen will be seeking to end a drought, now into its 16th year, since an Irishman last won a regular PGA European Tour event on home soil.

As no better than 10th reserve, Higgins - who has earned less than £10,000 in prizemoney and, at this stage, is resigned to a return to the Tour School in Spain next November - has no chance of making his way into an exceptionally strong field. With the race for the European number one place in the Order of Merit heating up, the record prize fund of £1.5 million has attracted seven of the top 10 in the Volvo rankings (only Ernie Els, Patrik Sjoland and Andrew Coltart are missing) and, generally, there is strength in depth through the entries.

The top three in the rankings - Lee Westwood, Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie - will all be playing at The K Club, but anyone venturing to quip about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman will be assured that this is a very serious business indeed. All three, however, have enjoyed quite different preparations for the second richest event on the European Tour schedule.

Clarke returns to an old stomping ground. He was once the touring professional for the Straffan facility and should be suitably refreshed after a two-week break from competition, taken after the birth of his first child. The Dungannon man has finished runner-up in his two previous tournaments - the Dutch Open and the Scandinavian Masters - and, while Westwood and Montgomerie were away at the USPGA in Seattle, Clarke decided to stay at home with his wife Heather and new son, but he did manage a couple of practice rounds at Straffan.

Not since John O'Leary won the Irish Open in 1982 has an Irishman won a regular tournament in this country and Clarke, Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, all stung and disappointed by their failures to even make the cut at the Irish Open last month, will be out to make amends this time round.

In all, there are 14 Irish players in the field: Clarke, Harrington, McGinley, Philip Walton, Raymond Burns, Eamonn Darcy and Des Smyth are joined by the top five players on the Irish PGA Region Order of Merit - Paul Russell, Geoff Loughrey, Leslie Walker, Damien McGrane and Stephen Hamill - while John McHenry and Christy O'Connor Jnr have received sponsor's invitations. By common consent, McHenry deserved an invitation after his trojan efforts in the Irish Open at Druids Glen and he is now assured of his playing privileges for next season but he is still reliant on invites for the remainder of this season. O'Connor Jnr, who has relied on invitations for his sporadic appearances on the circuit this season, celebrates his 50th birthday tomorrow and plans to play his first senior tour event at the Belfry next week.

Higgins, Francis Howley and Cameron Clark - all fighting uphill battles to retain their cards - were others seeking sponsor's invitations, but they failed in their efforts. Payne Stewart, who made such a strong challenge in this year's US Open, Gary Nicklaus and Justin Rose, still seeking his first pay cheque on the tour since turning professional after the British Open, received the three remaining invites.

Sweden's Per-Ulrik Johansson will be seeking a place in a rare enough club by attempting to win the European Open for a third successive year at the same venue. Ian Woosnam was the most recent member of the elite club when he won three Monte Carlo Open titles from 1990 to 1992 at the Mont Agel club, but he was denied the opportunity to make it four in a row when the event was taken off the tour's schedule, while Ernie Els won the World Matchplay (an approved special event) at Wentworth from 1994 to 1996.

Nick Faldo won three successive Irish Open titles from 1991 to 1993, the first two at Killarney and the third at Mount Juliet.