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New lease of life for Clarke

Darren Clarke is a changed man - a "Lean Mean Fighting Machine" according to his own website - as he kicks off his season in South Africa on Thursday.

The Open champion, awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours and runner-up in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, has been off the booze and in the gym ahead of the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt. Brilliant and career-defining though his victory at Sandwich was, the last five months of 2011 were a big let-down for Clarke and he does not want the same to be true of 2012.

"My golf career has been extended somewhat by winning the Open Championship and I just thought that enough is enough and it was time to get myself into better shape," the 43-year-old Northern Irishman said.

As soon as the Christmas festivities were over Clarke began working with Belfast-based fitness expert Jonny Bloomfield, recommended to him by stablemate Lee Westwood's trainer Steve MacGregor.

"Jonny's a sports scientist and he's got me doing all sorts in the gym, having my eyes checked out, nutrition etc," Clarke said. "Therefore my alcohol consumption is taking a massive dint....currently down to zero! However, no pain, no gain and I'm very excited about the route that we're going down.

"It's a long road, but I will give it my best shot."

Clarke's extraordinary win from 111th in the world makes him exempt for the Open until he is 61 and, after thinking his days competing in the Masters might be over, he will be at Augusta for the next five Aprils.

The man who won there last spring, South African Charl Schwartzel, is his playing partner in the opening round of this week's tournament - a 35-man no-cut event reserved for last year's European Tour winners and anyone with 10 or more victories on the circuit.

That second category allows in Padraig Harrington, Colin Montgomerie and the Scot's successor as Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal.

Montgomerie, now 48, will be playing the first 18 holes with someone who was not even born when he made his Tour debut in 1996. That is England's Tom Lewis, the 21-year-old who with an opening 65 shot the lowest-ever round by an amateur in last July's Open and then three months later won on only his third professional start at the Portugal Masters.

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