Clarke hoping for Sawgrass turnaround

By Brian Keogh

Darren Clarke is hoping that he'll feel right at home when he tees it up in The Players Championship at Sawgrass this week.

The venue for what the PGA Tour likes to call the Fifth Major, has been set up to play hard and fast after a massive $10 million redesign.

Every fairway and green has been completely re-laid and the new, links-style conditions could be just what Clarke needs to halt his alarming slide down the world rankings.

After missing four cuts in a row, the last thing the Ulsterman needed was to pull out of the Wachovia Championship with a hamstring injury before Friday's second round.

Now he's fallen another seven places in the rankings to world No 82 and he badly needs a decent week in Jacksonville to stop the rot.

Clarke said: "This year the rough will be up and the fairways firm and fast. It's almost a different course. It will be exciting."

Clarke picked up the hamstring injury after being tackled by his son Conor in a friendly back garden kick-about a few weeks ago.

He revealed: "Conor slid across from 10 feet away. It was a two-footed tackle. I ended up on my arse with a pulled hamstring."

The Ulsterman is hoping that rest and treatment will be enough to allow him to tee it up in the strongest field of the season so far.

And he's keeping his fingers crossed that he will be able to produce a similar performance to the career-best of sixth he achieved in 2003.

He added: "The TPC may not ever be a major, but everyone would say that it's the next tournament they would most like to win after a major.

"I have a lot of ambitions left. My career has been put on hold for the past five years. But I have been working really hard and am in the middle of playing five tournaments in a row. It's five years since I've done that."

World No 1 Tiger Woods, who took the Wachovia Championship by two shots on Sunday night, has won the Players Championship just once so far in his career.

But he admits that even though he appeared to cruise to his 57th PGA Tour victory, he will need to hit the ball straighter off the tee if he is to contend at Sawgrass.

Woods said: "The next three days are important. Most of the shots I hit this week were pretty good, but then again, I did hit a couple wide.

"You just can't do that next week. I've got to get that under control and get that straightened out so that my misses aren't way off line there, still in the fairway. That's the ultimate goal."

It is a similar story for Dubliner Padraig Harrington, who is the only other Irishman in the field after Clarke.

The world No 11 fired a sensational 66 to lead after the first round at Quail Hollow last week.

His brilliant putting made up for the fact that he did not hit one fairway on the front nine in compiling that score.

And his wayward driving caught up with him as he crashed to rounds of 75 and 79 on Friday and Saturday before repairing some of the damage with a closing 69 to finish tied for 43rd.

Harrington missed the cut at Sawgrass last year but after finishing second there in 2002 and 2003, he knows he has the game to contend for a title worth a cool $1.4 million.

World No 3 Phil Mickelson has never finished better than third in the Players Championship.

But the left hander is riding high after clinching his second third place finish in as many weeks at Quail Hollow.

Mickelson said: "We're all looking forward to getting back to TPC Sawgrass. The clubhouse is done, we're excited to see that. The golf course has been renovated, we're excited to see that, see how it plays, see how the condition is. I think everybody is really looking forward to the tournament."

The Wachovia Championship and The Players are being contested in back-to-back weeks for the first time this year.

The Players had annually been held in March but was moved as the PGA Tour's marquee events were spread out into consecutive months.

Mickelson added: "I thought I played well and I'm excited about getting a little momentum after last week's third-place finish, same thing this week. I'm looking forward to carrying that into The Players."

The 138-yard, island green 17th will be the star of the show again this week - a hole that swallows 150,000 balls every year as amateurs turn up to try their luck.

The green has been tweaked slightly since Stephen Ames took the title last year and now slopes from back to front to give the players a better chance of staying on the putting surface.

In April 2006, every tee, fairway and green on the 1982 creation was ripped up and taken away by truck.

An incredible 27,000 tons of top soil was removed and replaced by enough sand to fill seven miles of dump trucks parked bumper to bumper.

The Tour took advantage of the renovation to install a modern drainage system that will encourage firm and fast conditions.

Anything hit off line will now roll into redefined run-off areas or behind one of the 200 newly planted oak, pine of palm trees.

Sub-Air systems, the same as those at Augusta National, have been installed under every green to suck out moisture in the event of a deluge or inject air as necessary.

But the biggest change is the grass itself. New Mini-Verde bermuda grass has been used to re-sod greens which will now be fast than ever.

But while it measures 7,215 yards from the tips, the Stadium Course is not a hard slog by modern standards.

From Greg Norman to Fred Funk, it rewards long and short hitter alike.

General manager Bill Hughes said: "The renovation was not driven by length. As a major championship calibre golf course, you have to challenge the best players in the world with firm, fast conditions and that is what we have tried to guarantee here.”