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Clarke celebrates as Tiger flies home

By Karl MacGinty

Darren Clarke was celebrating the best possible reason to put off his flight from Shannon to Edinburgh yesterday afternoon but absolutely nothing was going to stop Tiger Woods boarding his Gulfstream jet and heading home to Florida.

Clarke was delighted to hang around for the prize-giving ceremony at the JP McManus Invitational after a defiant second-round 68 at Adare Manor clinched a first win in two fruitless and intensely frustrating years for the Ulsterman.

Tiger's motive for hurrying back across the Atlantic after less than 36 hours in Ireland was as strong as they come. “I need to get home,” he explained, “to see my kids”.

The most stunning sex scandal in sporting history has wrecked his marriage but Tiger's paternal instincts are as strong as ever, as Ian Poulter's account of events over dinner on Monday evening in Adare clearly suggest.

The tale the Englishman told yesterday was of Woods proudly showing other players iPhone footage of his tiny son Charlie Axel swinging a golf club.

It was uncannily like the infant Tiger himself, Poulter yesterday insisted. “I did see his lad swinging a golf club on his telephone last night and it was simply incredible — the grip, the swing, the toe, all at 15 months old!

“It's scary,” he added. “By the time he's 15, he'll probably have won at Augusta. I've probably only got 13 years left.”

Woods paused long enough after his second-round 69, an improvement of 10 strokes on Monday's dismal opening effort, to give a media conference in which a few heavy seconds of silence offered poignant evidence of the trauma in his private life.

With a divorce settlement supposedly in the offing, Woods was asked if matters off the course had been sorted out to the point where he could concentrate as much as he wanted on his game.

“Well, everything is working itself out,” Tiger replied softly, emotion momentarily plain on his face.

Woods may be ill at ease under media questioning but he's great company on the golf course, according to Grand National and Cheltenham Gold Cup-winner Mick Fitzgerald, who described playing with Tiger yesterday as the thrill of a lifetime.

“It was an amazing day,” said Fitzgerald, who was partnered yesterday by 15-times National Hunt champion jockey, Tony McCoy and American businessman, Jim Brewer. “It was unbelievable, something I'll never be lucky enough to experience again ... but even if I don't, I'll die happy.”

The enormity of playing with arguably the greatest golfer in history hit home for golf-nut Fitzgerald, a 13-handicapper, on the practice range yesterday morning.

“It was funny,” he said. “I was hitting a few balls and hitting them really good when Wobbly, who caddies for Soren Hansen, came up and said ‘the pressure's on today, playing with Tiger'.

“So I looked around and there was Tiger hitting balls. I suddenly thought ‘f**k, I'm playing golf with Tiger Woods today' and it all went awry,” he laughed.

“It just hit me but, thankfully, I'd just one bad swing all day.”

McCoy, who plays off 15, had fellow jockey Ruby Walsh, an occasional golfer, on his bag. “It was great fun, though I don't think I'll ever get a job as a caddie,” quipped Ruby. “AP played great, especially out of the sand.”

The jockeys impressed Woods, who said: “It's incredible what these guys put their bodies through. We'd a chance to talk about their injuries. They've broken pretty much every single bone in their body and still want to get back up there and ride.

“It's quite remarkable, a testament to how tough these guys really are,” added Tiger, who once again had former Walker Cup star Arthur Pierse on his bag.

Given the choice by JP McManus of either playing the event or caddying for Tiger, the Tipperaryman opted for the latter, striking up a comfortable partnership with the World No 1.

Mind you, had he heeded Pierse's advice that he'd never make the carry across the river Maigue with 7-iron at the last, Tiger would have saved a golf ball and the opportunity to match the low round of the week, Clarke's 68.

This victory means more to the Ulsterman, 41, than the €100,000 first prize, as it offers evidence that the efforts he made to regain former glories are paying off.

Clarke this morning left Adare for the Scottish Open in hope of winning the Open place on offer to the best top-five finisher at Loch Lomond not already exempt for next week's showpiece at St Andrews. Luke Donald finished one stroke behind the Ulsterman in second after his 69 yesterday. Irish Open champ Shane Lowry (71) tied third with Ernie Els (70) on one-under, with newly-crowned US Open champion Graeme McDowell joint fifth on level par with Poulter, among others, after both shot 69.

A level-par 72 left defending champion Padraig Harrington four-over for his 36 holes, while a double-bogey seven at 18 denied Rory McIlroy (75) a share of ninth on one-over with Damien McGrane (72).

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