Darren Clarke shows he still packs a punch

Darren Clarke carded an opening 69 after shedding 40-plus pounds over the winter. Picture: Getty
Darren Clarke carded an opening 69 after shedding 40-plus pounds over the winter. Picture: Getty
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TOO big, too heavy, too lethargic. That was Darren Clarke’s blunt assessment of what he saw in the mirror last October before embarking on a physique-changing regime that had been the talk of the steamie here long before the former Open champion made his presence felt on the leaderboard in the $4 million Volvo Golf Champions.

Pride of place in the opening round of the European Tour’s Tournament of Champions undoubtedly went to Frenchman Raphael Jacquelin, who, almost miraculously on a day when a stiff wind was whipping in off the Indian Ocean, negotiated his way round Durban Country Club without dropping a shot.

A five-under-par 67 earned Jacquelin a one-stroke lead over defending champion Louis Oosthuizen but, with due respect to either of them, the spotlight belonged to Clarke after he’d nestled himself in joint-third alongside Frenchman Victor Dubuisson after matching 69s.

Once a fully-fledged member of golf’s heavyweight division, the 45-year-old has turned up on the Eastern Cape looking a shadow of his former self. He’s shed 40-plus pounds over the winter, forcing him to replace everything in his wardrobe and land a bonanza for his local Oxfam shop. But the benefit of feeling both fitter and stronger was instant and Clarke is hoping his career is now set to take off again after suffering a slump since that Claret Jug triumph at Royal St George’s three years ago.

“It was definitely a conscious decision,” declared the Ulsterman of him linking up with a Dublin-based fitness guru, Jamie Myerscough, and embarking on a daily programme of lifting heavy weights, changing his diet and taking supplements for the first time in his life.

“I was getting too big, too heavy, too lethargic and decided to do something about it,” added Clarke, one of the players in this week’s field on the strength of having won more than ten European Tour titles as opposed to being a 2013 champion. After a round that was sparked by a chip in for a birdie at the short second, though, he dismissed the suggestion that it was a radical lifestyle change. “I’ve still had a few pints with my mates over Christmas and radical would suggest otherwise,” he said, smiling. “Listen, I’ve not gone totally to the dark side!”

Just as important as being able to cope physically in humid conditions was Clarke’s knowledge of a course that is not only tight off the tee but undulating, too. “This might be my 15th tournament here, so I know what the course is like and how difficult it plays,” he said. “It’s a case of keeping your shots in play, working your way round from there – and I did that today.

“This is just the first round of the first tournament this year, but I’m pleased with the start. I hit an awful lot of really good golf shots and I putted quite nicely as well. Now I just hope I carry it on.”

Jacquelin’s splendid effort – “I score better in difficult conditions,” admitted the leader – was crafted in the company of Colin Montgomerie, who recovered well from an opening bogey to sit in a seven-strong group sharing fifth spot on two-under. The Scot’s round was illuminated by a birdie-2 at the 15th, where he came close to winning a digger worth $75,000 – one of five hole-in-one prizes on offer from the sponsor this week.

“I could do some improvements back home with something like that, but it’s a hell of a trip with a digger back over Africa,” quipped Montgomerie of a sweetly-struck 7-iron that finished a foot or so behind the hole. “If it had gone in, I would immediately have asked Volvo how much it was worth and then I would try to split the cash with my caddie because I have always said that if win a car or something for a hole-in-one it would be half mine and half his,” he added in a statement that is now down in black and white for Alistair McLean to see.

The Scot described Jacquelin’s display as “exceptional” on a day he reckoned was more about “guile than grunt” due to a combination of the wind and pin positions. “As this course flanks the Indian Ocean, every hole is a cross-wind so it’s very difficult, one, to judge the distances and, two, the direction,” he said. “I can do better on these golf courses than the 8,000-yard things they are producing right now – and this is why I am playing here.” According to Oosthuizen, who also started with a bogey but didn’t put a foot wrong thereafter, it’s a completely different test to the one here 12 months ago, when the South African overturned a five-shot deficit in the final round to pip Scott Jamieson. “It was wet then but fast and running this time,” said the 2010 Open champion, admitting he feels at home playing in such conditions.

One shot apart – it cost him a triple-bogey 7 at the 11th – Stephen Gallacher, the other Scot in the 36-man field, was pleased with his ball control in a one-over 73 in the company of Miguel Angel Jimenez, who celebrated turning 50 last weekend with a chip in at the first, only to run up a 7 himself two holes later and eventually sign for a 76.