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Irish Open 2015: Darren Clarke relishes taking on the gusty conditions

By Peter Hutcheon

The more the wind blows at Royal County Down this week, the happier Darren Clarke will be.

"Wind, rain bring it on - I don't mind it at all," he said.

"I grew up playing in conditions like that and it doesn't take much of a breeze around Royal County Down to present a very tough challenge.

"I think we are in for a very interesting week and I think that the guys are going to love it."

Clarke was the tournament host three years ago at Royal Portrush and with all the off-course activity that entailed, he didn't really feature as a major force in the competition itself.

And although he does have to wear his European Ryder Cup captain's hat from time to time, he cuts a relaxed figure ahead of the action.

Sunday's 66, which equalled his lowest round at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship, has put Clarke in a great frame of mind.

"In terms of my ball striking, it was really, really good last week and I'm looking to bring that with me this week," he said.

"In too many Irish Opens in the past, I've been first off the tee on Saturday mornings and not at the business end of the tournament."

Clarke says he is surprised at just how fast the course is playing and that it is going to present a proper challenge to the field.

"It's no coincidence that Royal County Down is so far up on the list of golf courses in the world," he said. "This is a proper golf course.

"You have to put the ball in the air to get it up over the hills, but you also have to be able to play the ball along the ground.

"You see the young kids bombing it and hitting it a long way, but this golf course requires a little bit more guile.

"Modern technology is irrelevant here. You have to hit draws, fades, use the ground and hold it against the wind.

"Sometimes you are going to have to land the ball 30 yards short of the green or out of the rough maybe 50 yards if you get a flyer just to hold the green.

"The caddie can give you your yardage, but he hasn't a clue what club you are going to want to take.

"You can hit a five iron from 150 yards out and just have fun with it.

"It requires a little bit more guile and patience than most courses do.

"It's still a sensational test, irrelevant of technology, how far it has moved on.

"The golf course doesn't know whether you're a home player or not, but I think a little bit of local knowledge and knowledge of playing links golf in particular is going to be important this week."

This will be Clarke's 24th Irish Open and he says without question it is the strongest field he has ever known.

And that, he maintains, is squarely down to Rory McIlroy and the high esteem with which the world number one is regarded by the other players.

"To be able to do what he's doing off the golf course is a great credit to him," said Clarke. "There are a huge amount of world ranking points available this week because of the strength of the field and I think that is a reflection of how high Rory is held by his peers.

"It's going to be a fantastic week of golf and the winner is going to have to play some seriously good golf come Sunday."

And McIlroy (pictured) will look to bounce back from his missed cut at Wentworth last week by avoiding a similar early exit from his home event for what would be a third consecutive year.

McIlroy is in for a busy week with his foundation hosting the event, but 2007 Irish Open winner and triple Major champion Padraig Harrington said: "I don't think it will be a problem for him.

"I think he's got a good enough game that he can triumph against whatever difficulties are set up for him in that sense.

"I think he's good enough in his mindset that he's quite happy to go out there and play, without having the ideal preparation. I for one would not be discounting him."

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