Skipper Darren Clarke will have the Ryder Cup on his mind at Open
Darren Clarke has mixed emotions about teeing it up in the 145th Open Championship at Troon this week. Clarke admits he is consumed by Ryder Cup matters as the season nears its peak ahead of the clash with the USA at Hazeltine from September 30-October 2.
The captaincy of Europe is his priority, but Clarke the golfer, the intense competitor and Claret Jug winner of 2011, hopes against hope that he can recapture some of the old magic for four days, starting on Thursday.
Watching him hit shot after shot on the practice ground at Royal Troon under the watchful eye of coach Pete Cowen, an onlooker could see the desire to get his swing in the groove.
First question: "Can you be Darren the golfer, not Ryder Cup captain this week?"
The answer was emphatic: "No," he said. "I'm just thinking about it all the time, but I'll go out this week and see how it goes. I'm hitting the ball nicely."
The work he's doing with Cowen has centred on correcting his spine angle.
"I'm trying not to get ahead of my body. I've been moving my spine angle forward and I've had to move back and collect myself, and that's why I've been struggling a while," said the Ulsterman.
The year so far has yielded little reward, materially and mentally, for the Ryder Cup skipper who has played six events, including The Masters, on the European Tour schedule and made only two cuts.
Sacrifice of his own game inevitably comes with the captain's role. It does not make struggling on a golf course any easier, or acceptable, to Clarke, who demands high standards.
"I've been more watching and following the guys myself. Then when I have been playing, I haven't done any good and I've being annoying myself. There are more important things going on than my own golf, but the competitor in me still hates going out and playing awful," he said.
Troon holds some good memories for Clarke, who finished tied-second in 1997 and tied-11th in 2004, but he would prefer to forget the three-iron he hit onto the beach in the final round when he was co-leader in '97.
Justin Leonard went on to win by three shots from joint second-placed Clarke and Jesper Parnevik, and he would have to wait another 14 years to get hold of the Claret Jug.
At 47 - he turns 48 on August 14 - and with the Ryder Cup on the horizon, the chances of a repeat are marginal. Clarke is, however, promoting the cause of Royal Portrush, venue for the Open in 2019, wherever he can, and last year's champion Zach Johnson acknowledged that this is a venue not to be missed.
Johnson said: "His love for links golf and any golf in the UK is immense, and he's like, 'Zach, it's going to be one of, if not your favourite course'. A lot of the top courses I've ever played have been in this tournament."
Clarke added: "The day they go on sale, every ticket will be gone, like it was for the Irish Open at Portrush in 2012."
Meanwhile, World No.3 Jordan Spieth has withdrawn from the Rio Olympics.
Like Aussie Jason Day and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, the American cited concerns over the Zika virus as his reason.
That has led International Golf Federation (IGF) president Peter Dawson to claim there has been an "overreaction" to the threat of the virus.
Dawson said: "It's certainly disappointing that we've had so many withdrawals on the men's side.There is no doubt that the number of withdrawals hasn't shown golf in the best light.
"Personally, I think there's been something of an overreaction to the Zika situation, but that's for individuals to determine. I have no knowledge that people are using Zika as an excuse."