By Brian Keogh
Just over a year ago, Darren Clarke glared from a sofa in Portugal, looked his inquisitors firmly in the eye and declared: “I’m no quite b*****d yet, you know.” Looks as though he was right.
After several false dawns and more behind the scenes changes than Danny La Rue managed in his career, the 39-year-old Ulsterman stands on the verge of his first European Tour victory for five years in the BWM Asian Open in Shangai.
Capping a day of imperious ball-striking, Clarke birdied Tomson Shangai Pudong’s 477-yard 18th thanks to a glorious fairway bunker shot that nestled just 12 feet from the hole to sneak a one-stroke lead over Dutchman Robert-Jan Derksen on nine-under par.
Rejuvenated by a new putting routine, Clarke duly took a giant step towards his 11th European Tour victory when he rolled home his fifth birdie of the day for an immaculate, five-under par 67 that featured just 27 putts.
This is big news for a man with two World Golf Championships and five Ryder Cup appearances on his CV and bearing in mind all he has suffered since his wife Heather succumbed to cancer in August 2006, it would not be overstating things to suggest that today could be the most significant in Clarke’s 18-year professional career.
"I am really looking forward to it," said Clarke, who hasn’t led a tournament outright after 54 holes since he notched the first of two successive victories in the Japanese Tour’s Taiheiyo Masters in 2004. "It has been a while. I was in contention a couple of times at the start of the season but it has been a while since I led and I just hope I can continue doing what I am doing.
"I'll just go out tomorrow and play as well as I can and hopefully I'll be good enough, but if not I'll battle on next week."
Clarke’s putting has always been his Achilles' heel and while he missed two short range chances yesterday, his closing birdie moved him a comfortable seven strokes clear of Retief Goosen and nine ahead of Henrik Stenson on a leaderboard bereft of big names.
"I was putting pretty good,” added Clarke, who birdied the second from 15 feet and the sixth from 10 to take the lead. “I missed twice from three feet for birdies on two par fives but overall I hit a lot of really good putts, so I am pleased."
After wafting a three and a half foot birdie chance wide at the ninth, Clarke replied by hitting a wedge stone dead at the 10th before missing another short one on the long 13th, where he hit two drivers into a greenside trap.
Dutchman Derksen was leading by a stroke at this stage after making three birdies around the turn. And while he did well to make a bogey at the short 14th after finding water with his tee shot and birdied the 16th for a 69, Clarke’s solid six footer at the par-five 15th and that stunning, closing birdie left him sitting pretty at the top.
English rookie and 2005 Walker Cup player Robert Dinwiddie carded a best-of-the-week 66 to sit in third place, two shots behind Clarke, with the unheralded Lin Wen-Tang of Chinese Taipei three shots adrift of the Irish star on six-under after a 69.
Four players are six strokes behind in a tie for fifth but French rookie Michael Lorenzo-Vera, Chinese amateur Hu Mu, Australia’s Peter O’Malley and India’s Digvijay Singh won't have cost Clarke too much sleep.
Derksen won his second tour title in the 2005 Madeira Islands Open but he has struggled to establish himself as a front-line player since he shot a closing 65 to grab a shock, one-shot win over Ernie Els the 2003 Dubai Desert Classic.
Clarke, though, is too experienced to let those factors disturb his focus. But he will be well aware of what a victory would do for his career.
Now hurtling towards his 40th birthday in August, he was ranked 24th in the world when he stood up on the first tee in the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club but has since slipped to 236th despite three, early season top-ten finishes in South Africa and Malaysia. A win would catapult him into the world's top 115 and put him back in contention for a sixth Ryder Cup cap under Nick Faldo captaincy in September
His protege Rory McIlroy is tied for 15th, eight adrift of the master, on one under par with Peter Lawrie on level after a 70 and a struggling Gary Murphy a long way off the big money placings he craves on four-over par after a 73.