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Clarke proud of Portrush praise

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Darren Clarke insists the Irish Open is one of his 'favourite tournaments'

Darren Clarke insists the Irish Open is one of his 'favourite tournaments'

Darren Clarke insists the Irish Open is one of his 'favourite tournaments'

Playing a sell-out Irish Open at the course he has known since he was a boy is only part of the reason Darren Clarke is eager to tee off at Royal Portrush on Thursday.

With just three weeks to go to his defence of The Open, Clarke realises this is a golden opportunity to end a nightmare slump.

"The Irish Open has always been one of my favourite tournaments and to have it here at Royal Portrush with this amount of people makes me very, very proud," Clarke said. "It's all worked out unbelievably well. The players love it - it's almost got an Open feel, which is what I think the course deserves.

The 43-year-old was not even born when Northern Ireland last staged the event - that was 1953 - and the extra special nature of the week began for him on Wednesday when he partnered both his father Godfrey and older son Tyrone, plus Westlife's Shane Filan, in the curtain-raising pro-am.

He said: "I moved up here when I was young, played an awful lot of my golf here and moved back a couple of years ago. Winning The Open was due - a lot of it was due - to the fact that I was living here and playing Royal Portrush. Every one of my fellow Tour pros bar none has been full of praise already.

"The Open is the biggest and best tournament in the world - obviously I won last year, so I have to say that. But it is and for guys to come here and say everything about it feels like an Open Championship is about as big praise as anybody can give it."

Clarke has not played for a month, missing the Nordea Masters in Sweden and then the US Open because of a recurring groin strain. He hopes the break has enabled him to start afresh in a season in which he has, amazingly, yet to survive a halfway cut.

On both his fitness and his game he described things as "not too bad", adding: "I've been down here quite a lot practising and I'm looking forward to getting back."

He had said earlier this month that he would be playing with the aid of a Zimmer frame if necessary, but it will not be necessary.

He said: "I'll crawl around. I've been working away and hopefully things will turn around pretty soon."

PA