Officially, Royal St George’s doesn’t open its gates until 7am. But that didn’t stop Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy stealing onto the first tee at 6.45am yesterday for their final practice ahead of The Open Championship.
s they did in 2011, before Clarke won on the Kent links, and in 2014, when McIlroy won at Hoylake, the pair had their last tune-up for the final Major of the year together, playing a friendly 18 holes which featured plenty of laughter, especially when Thomas Bjorn, a good friend to both, walked with them down the 16th.
No money changed hands — allegedly — but advice did, Clarke offering some sage wisdom about how to conquer the course to McIlroy, with some iron tips heading in the other direction. Most importantly, it was just a familiar way for Clarke to ease himself into the biggest week of his year.
“Any time you get a chance to play with Rory, I really enjoy it,” smiled the 52-year-old, boasting an impressive dark tan which he picked up long before he arrived on the south-east coast of England.
“I’ve known Rory since he’s been a very young kid coming through my foundation, playing with him and stuff, and then to see him develop into the man he’s become and the golfer he’s become has been wonderful. So when you get an opportunity to play with him, (you take it).”
It’s that level of comfort which Clarke is hoping could make him another unlikely winner this week, as he was 10 years ago. Phil Mickelson has somewhat stolen his thunder by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island two months ago then at the age of 50, but it would be no less impressive if the Dungannon man emulated him on Sunday.
And why couldn’t he? Royal St George’s obviously holds many treasured memories and it is a place where underdogs can flourish. If you don’t consider Clarke a big enough shock in 2011, just ask Ben Curtis, one of the all-time biggest rank outsiders to win The Open when he emerged victorious at Sandwich from 396th in the world rankings in 2003.
Clarke is in decent form on the PGA Tour Champions, too, winning back-to-back events around the turn of the year and sitting 14th in the money list for the season, while he’s coming off a tied-28th finish at the US Seniors’ Open where he wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
And, perhaps most importantly, it won’t be for a lack of trying, either. The former European Ryder Cup captain was one of the last men on the range on Tuesday evening, working with swing coach Pete Cowen, before returning at the crack of dawn to race out for a few holes before the patrons flooding in caught on.
“I’ve been practising, working really, really hard. With that being said, to come back over here and play links, I haven’t been home since November 2019, so I haven’t played any links golf. This is my first time back to it,” revealed Clarke.
“Down in the Bahamas where I live now and spend most of my time, it is very windy, but the turf is different down there at the Abaco Club. So to get back and get a little bit of preparation, the first couple days I’ve been trying to reacquaint myself with playing links golf.
“Hopefully some of that growing up playing links stuff is all going to come back to me, and hopefully I’ll have another good week.”
Royal St George’s is not the same course it was in 2011. While it may be the same length as it was 10 years ago, the rough is thicker and the fairways are softer due to a deluge of rain on Monday evening. Rather than chasing balls into greens, as is traditional on links layouts, players will be able to utilise the lofted wedge shots more akin to your week-to-week PGA Tour event.
Clarke, too, is not the same player either — he’s 10 years older and has naturally lost a bit of power to Father Time, and while few would argue with being stuck in the Bahamas during the pandemic, he is also battling against that lack of preparation. Statistically, his chances of winning are probably even more remote than Curtis’ were in 2003.
But if anybody is comfortable at this venue, then it’s the genial Ulsterman, who will be smiling the whole way round no matter how it goes. He’s already a winner here, and nobody can take that away from him.
“This golf course offers me one of the best memories I’ve ever had in the game of golf. It may not be my favourite course, but this course has been very, very good to me,” he added, flashing an early indication of that smile we can expect.
“I’ve played the past three days, going around the golf course just thinking, ‘How did I ever win here?’ The course was playing that difficult in the breeze. But I did.
“To come back as the guy who won it the last time is still a huge privilege.
“All I ever wanted from a young kid when I was practising was to get my name on the Claret Jug, and I was able to do that here, so this is always going to be very special to me.”
Do it again and he would join a legendary group that includes Harry Vardon and Walter Hagen as two-time winners at Royal St George’s. That would be even more special.