Darren Clarke posted a first-round 63 at the Joburg Open yesterday which hinted that 14 months of misery and frustration might be at an end for the 40-year-old Ulsterman.
Clarke wasn't flattered in the least by his best round on Tour this century and his lowest since shooting 60 in the second round of the 1999 European Open at The K Club.
After its fairways and greens had been softened by torrential rain early in the week, the West Course at Royal Johannesburg was ripe for the picking.
Clarke and his South African playing companion, Charl Schwartzel (25), the winner of last week's Africa Open, took full advantage, harvesting 18 birdies between them as they loped into a share of second place with another young Springbok, JB Kruger, and English duo Simon Khan and David Lynn.
Johannesburg local Neil Schietekat took the lead with a scintillating 62, the best round of the 25-year-old's fledgling two-year career on the Sunshine Tour.
Clarke, currently ranked 115th in the world, knows he must get 2010 off to a flying start if he's to play his way onto Colin Montgomerie's team at Celtic Manor next October. After his Trojan work of the past 12 months had largely gone unrewarded, yesterday's round is a real fillip.
The East Course is, by far, the most formidable of the two at Johannesburg but it is one of Clarke's favourite tracks in Africa. After playing three successive rounds on this monster in 11-under par — he finished fourth hre in 2008 — he's relishing the next 54 holes.
Clarke revelled in good company yesterday. “I played with Charl in the first two rounds last week and he played great once again,” he said, adding with a smile: “When he scored a couple of early birdies out there today, I decided I wasn't going to get left behind again.”
The Ulsterman started smartly himself with birdies on the first two holes. He collected another three before the turn and still had neither a bogey nor a five on his card after completing the back nine in three-under par.
The highlight of Clarke's day was the immense, soaring shot he hit to 12 feet at the par-five 15th.
“Usually, I'm a two or three-iron type but with all the rain this week, I knew I'd need to play some long high shots,” he said.
Clarke narrowly missed the eagle putt there after leaving another (for birdie) on the lip at 14. Yet his Scotty Cameron putter served him well at 17, where the 20-footer for his final birdie dropped into the hole on its final roll.
“Overall, I played pretty well. I only missed two fairways,” added Clarke, who completed a significant up-and-down from greenside rough for par at the last after a wayward drive had threatened to spoil the perfect day.
Michael Hoey was tied 41st after his 68 on the West Course.