Scare for Clarke as he hits Leaney's wife

By Brian Keogh

Dazed Darren Clarke recovered himself from the fright of his life to challenge for his second Smurfit European Open crown.

The big Dungannon man hit playing partner Stephen Leaney's pregnant wife on the back of the head after his full-blooded drive on the 11th ricocheted off a tree.

Six months pregnant Tracey Leaney suffered a cut to the head but wasn't knocked out or concussed by Clarke's rocket attack.

The Ulsterman was badly shook by the incident but he didn't take long to recover and threaten the tournament lead.

Three under par for his round at the time, his ball finished 40 yards away in the middle of the fairway.

After apologising to Leaney and his wife he made a regulation par four and then hit a hat trick of birdies on his way to a super 67.

His five under par round left him tied with Kilkenny's Gary Murphy as the leading Irishman and just a shot adrift of leaders Alastair Forsyth, Phillip Price and Retief Goosen.

He said: "It was just one of those things that it happened to be Stephen's wife who was standing next to the tree.

"It wasn't a nice moment. It's always horrible hitting anybody and when we were walking up there and saw her lying on the ground it was terrible."

Leaney's wife, who is expecting the couple's first child in September, ended up with a small cut on the back of the head was taken to the on-site medical unit for observation.

She was released after a couple of hours and went back to her hotel.

Clarke added: "It's horrible for everybody but I shouldn't have hit the ball over there. Unfortunately people get hit every now and then."

It's not the first time that the Ulster star has hit a player's wife.

In the Open at Royal St George's in 1993 he hit Barbara, the wife of Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus.

He winced: "The last woman I hit was Barbara Nicklaus. My record is not very good but she was okay as well."

The day ended in smiles for Clarke who shrugged off an indifferent day from tee green with a brilliant putting display.

Despite a bogey at the second, he picked up birdies at the fourth and ninth to turn in one under par.

At the 584 yard par-five 10th he hit an "easy" five-wood over 260 yards to set up a two-putt birdie.

The incident at the 11th didn't appear to affect his scoring to much as he birdied the 12th,13th and 14th to get to five under for the day.

At his "wit's end" on the greens after the US Open, this time Clarke finally holed putts of 15, six and 15 feet to scorch up the leaderboard.

Despite a bogey at the 17th where his six-iron approach came up short, Clarke got back to five under at the last with a tidy pitch to three feet.

After a year of brilliant ball striking and poor putting, Clarke was delighted to have things the other way around yesterday.

He said: "I putted really nicely today. I didn't hole everything but I holed a lot of nice ones so it was nice to see that the work I am doing with Harold Swash is paying off.

"Today I swung the club poorly but putted great. I wasn't holing 30 footers all over the place but I just putted tidily.

"My ball striking just seemed to go a little today so I'm going to go to the range for a little while now to sort it out."

Scot Forsyth, Welshman Price and South African Goosen all carded course record rounds of 66 to shoot to the top of the leaderboard.

Forsythe birdied the last three holes to set the pace before being joined by the other pair.

He said: "It's my first course record. But I can't imagine how Clarke shot 60 around here. That was unbelievable."

But Goosen believes that the winning score could be as low as 15 under if the weather holds.

The former US Open champion made just one bogey -at the fifth - where he drove into trees.

And it was a day to remember too for Ryder Cup hero Price, who has struggled since he beat Phil Mickelson at the Belfry last September.

He said: "I really need a bit of success to push forward. I've watched the video of the Ryder Cup and I'm sick of it."

Murphy was even happier after a flawless 67 that could have been even better.

And it could make up for what he calls his "Jumbo 7-4-7" finish here a couple of years ago that caused him to miss the cut by one.

He said: "I suppose the course owes me one. I played well last year too but didn't hole any putts and only finished seven behind the winner.

"I've shot a 62 on the tour but this is up there with my best rounds since I came out here.

"Today I hit the ball well when I needed to, got up and down when I missed greens and didn't make a bogey."

Ranked a lowly 132nd on the money list, 30-year-old Murphy has made eight visits to the European Tour qualifying school since 1995.

He added: "It's a good start and the course suits my game. I hit the driver and long irons well. I've holed some nice putts today

"I've made 10 of 14 cuts so it's time to convert my chances. I have turned 68s into 72s so far this year. But I'm not worried about holding on to my card.

"You have to be patient. At my first hole today, the 10th, I was stymied behind a tree, hit it up the fairway 50 yards into the rough and bunkered the next. I had to get it up and down to make my par.

"That summed up my day. Instead of starting with a six I made a par. But I'm not worried about my card because if I play well my card will be safe."

Murphy birdied the 15th and 18th to turn in 35 before hitting a hat trick of birdies from the second to get to five under.

At the second he rifled a seven iron to 30 feet and drained the putt. Then he hit a six-iron stone dead at the par three third before reducing the par five fourth to a drive, a three-iron and two putts.

It could have been even better had he not missed a six-footer for a two at the Liffeyside eighth.

But apart from Clarke, Murphy and McDowell it wasn't a day to remember for the Irish.

K Club professional Paul McGinley and Laganview Damian Mooney had level par rounds of 72 as the rest of the Irish challengers failed to break par.