Clarke not finished just yet

By Brian Keogh

"Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn't have the game anymore. It's rusted from lack of use."

So wrote Tom McCollister of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a piece all golf writers would do well to read before sticking their necks out in a major championship preview.

McCollister penned those words before the 1986 Masters Tournament, which Nicklaus would go on to win with one of the great final round performances in the history of the majors.

McCollister, who died in a car accident in 1999, spoke of the piece years later, recalling: "Like a lot of people, I decided to do a chart and put a comment on each one of them, what their chances were. I got to Jack, and I just thought he hadn't played well all that year, or the year before. So I just wrote that he's done. It was just a big paragraph, really."

Nicklaus was 46 at the time, eight years older than Darren Clarke is now, when a friend put it on the Golden Bear’s fridge door at Augusta, where Nicklaus had arrived in a deep slump, having missed three cuts out of seven and withdrawn from a fourth event.

Writing off a man who had not won a Major since the 1980 PGA Championship, must not have seemed like too much of a stretch for McCollister, who was the first face that Nicklaus mischievously sought out when he got the to the press room after his win.

"Thanks Tom," Nicklaus said.

"Glad I could help," McCollister replied.

When Henrik Stenson won this year's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, long after Clarke had been beaten by Sergio Garcia in the first round, a colleague wrote that the Swede had better watch out for young guns such as Justin Rose and Paul Casey as "Europe's old guard of Darren Clarke, Thomas Bjorn and Colin Montgomerie continue their seemingly inexorable descent towards irrelevance."

It was a brave call and yet fully understandable given Clarke's trajectory in major championships over the past 14 years.

While he won in Japan in 2004 and 2005, Clarke has not lifted a significant trophy since he romped to a four-shot win in the 2003 WGC- NEC Invitational at Firestone in Ohio.

His best finish in the majors over the past ten years is a share of third place in The Open at Royal Lytham and St Annes in 2001- one of just four occasions when he has managed to get within five shots of the lead with a round to play.

Whether the offending piece has been pasted to Clarke's fridge door is anyone's guess. But you got the distinct impression that the Ulsterman was fully aware of the sound of obituary pencils being sharpened when he turned up on the Algarve in March to sign a deal to represent Oceanico Golf as their touring professional for the next three years.

"As far as I am concerned there’ve been a few people that have decided I’m done, but I wouldn’t quite see it that way," Clarke said from his throne, a safe 18 feet away from his interrogators.

Q: With Charles Howell and Henrik Stenson winning in the past two weeks in the States, we have two winners who are younger that Tiger. A new generation is emerging …

"Is that so, how old is Tiger?"

Q: He’s 31, it’s as if a new generation is coming through. Does that make you think it really is time to get moving?

"Does Fred Funk winning at 50 not count?"

Q: It does.

"What age did Nick Price win his first Major at? What age did Vijay win his first Major? What age did Mark O’Meara win his first Major? Maybe I’m not quite bollixed yet."

Whether Darren Clarke is a potential Singh (who was 35), Price (37) or O'Meara (41) is anyone's guess. He certainly isn't Jack Nicklaus and would do well to take a look at the birth certificates of the major winners over the past ten years.

Of the 40 majors played since 1997, 31-year-old Woods has won 12 of them, which has brought the average age of the winners down to a scary 31.1 years. Without Woods the average is 33.3 years - five years older than Clarke is now.

Clarke reckons he has five years left at the top but in an era when the young guns are booming with regularity, how many more chances will he get?

That opening birdie in the Ryder Cup at the K Club last September is a moment that Clarke cleaves to right now as he fights to juggle the demands of sport at the highest level with his responsibilities as a single dad.

"There will never be a harder shot for me to play," he says of the moment when he flushed a 340 yard drive down the middle, "buttoned" his approach over the flag and "knocked in" the 15 footer. "I now know that whatever my nervous system does to me in a major, it will be nothing compared to what happened that Friday morning."

If Clarke can show the kind of composure and integrity he displayed during his late wife’s long battle with cancer, winning a major will seem like a walk in the park by comparison.