By Brian Keogh

No-one really knows what he's going through but friend and foe alike are rooting for Darren Clarke.

Free-falling down the world rankings following his seventh missed cut in a row in Connecticut last week, Clarke isn't the kind of guy that looks for any sympathy.

Yet there is a huge amount of goodwill out there for a man who is still battling to come to terms with the death of his wife Heather less than a year ago.

Reports from the Traveler's Championship revealed that Clarke pull his visor down over his eyes as he headed towards yet another confidence-sapping failure.

Grabbing a packet of smokes from his golf bag, he lit up, took a deep drag and plopped himself on the steps leading down to the putting green.

After one last puff, he flipped what was left of the cigarette over the hedge and lit up another one.

Stand-in caddie, Kayce Kerr, put his arm around Clarke's shoulders and gave him a friendly squeeze as the boss pulled out his mobile and made a call.

Whether he was checking in on his sons Conor and Tyrone - aged 6 and 9 - is irrelevant.

Clarke just knows that the good times will roll around again, though when that might happen is anyone's guess.

After crashing to 116th in the world this week, golf is still playing second fiddle in Clarke's life as he comes to terms with the death of his life partner.

The boys are all that matters now.

He said: "My boys are more important than anything else. I've got to make sure that they're OK. But it's good to be back out playing again.

"I'm not quite happy with the way I'm playing, but ... you know ... at the moment, I'm taking it week by week."

Nine months have passed since Clarke and his Ryder Cup team mate Padraig Harrington exchanged a solid, silent handshake of mutual congratulations outside the K Club Hotel the morning after that momentous victory over the Americans.

Harrington, too, knows what it's like to lose a close family member and try to pick up the pieces.

Yesterday, the Dubliner turned up at Stackstown - the course his late father helped to build with his bare hands - to play his part in the Paddy Harrington Memorial.

And while it has only been two years since the strapping former policeman Gaelic footballer lost his battle with cancer, Harrington's greatest wish is not major glory but simply the chance to play one more game of golf with Dad.

Like Clarke, Harrington sought refuge from the pain of his loss on the golf course.

And even US star JJ Henry admits that it was hard to show any ill-will towards Clarke has he helped tear Tom Lehman's side apart with three wins from three as a Ryder Cup wildcard just 10 months ago.

The American played was in the process of halving with Paul McGinley as Clarke defeated Zach Johnson 3 and 2 in the singles match behind him at the K Club last year.

Once the point was safe, the Ulsterman broke down and sobbed in the arms of his caddie and received hugs from US captain Tom Lehman and pal Tiger Woods.

Speaking in Connecticut, Henry said: "It was almost hard to root against him. As much as we wanted to beat him, it was hard to root against him with everything he'd been through.

"I was playing just in front of him and you could hear that roar all the way in England, let alone in Ireland."

"It's great to see him back out here. I can't even imagine what he's going through.

"Right now, the golf course is probably the best place for him, to be honest, get away from everything, hit some golf shots and get your mind right.

"He's just a first-class guy and a heck of a player. If you want to have a pint of beer or smoke a cigar with him, he's just a lot of fun to be with."

Big Swede Carl Petterson, who played the first two rounds with Clarke at TPC River Highlands last week, reckons it's only a matter of time before the Irish star is shining brightly again.

Petterson said: "He seems to be doing all right. It has to be an unbelievable, tough thing to go through. I know he hasn't been playing his best lately and you can't expect him to. I'm sure he'll be back."

Clarke feels he will, too. He just doesn't know when.

He said: "We're getting used to the routine in our lives again. We're just taking our time."

Clarke's manager, Chubby Chandler, must have one of the toughest jobs in golf right now.

And he points out the his star client simply didn't realise just how important his wife's off-course role was to his success on the fairways.

Chandler said: "I think like a lot of top golfers he didn't actually realise how much his wife did while he was playing golf.

"There have been so many changes in his life and it has all been very difficult for him to come to terms with.

"As a manager you consider one of your main jobs is to keep the surprises away so your man can concentrate. But for two years, Darren has had nothing but surprises."

Clarke's absence from the Smurfit European Open at the K Club next week has as much to do with his schedule and his children as it has with avoiding another emotional battering.

Quite apart from the fact that the event is being played on the newer Smurfit Course and not the Palmer Course that hosted the Ryder Cup, the cigar-puffing Irish star simply can't face the memories that could come flooding back.

Chandler added: "His memories of the K Club are of breaking down in tears at last year's Ryder Cup and baring his soul in public and I'm not sure returning there right now would do him any good."

Perhaps September's Seve Trophy at the Heritage will herald the start of Clarke's homecoming in more ways that one.

He might need a wildcard from skipper Nick Faldo for that one too, but given his performances at the K Club last year, it would be foolish to bet against a repeat performance.

(Cabrera set for Westwood showdown)

Lee Westwood says he's ready for some serious Smurfit European Open fireworks at the K Club next week.

The beefy Englishman has an amazing record at the Kildare track with two wins on the Palmer Course alone.

But his form on the newer Smurfit Course, venue for the event this year, is not too shabby either.

Tied for second behind Retief Goosen in 2004, he took fourth place behind Stephen Dodd last year and reckons he can pull off a win this term.

Westwood said: "I played pretty good round there last year and it is a pretty decent test of golf.

"There was a lot of wind last year and to be honest it probably needs a bit of breeze. I'm looking forward to going back.

"I've won twice round the other course so I'd love to get a win on the new one. No reason why I can't do it."

Padraig Harrington has only broken 70 once in eight rounds at the Arnold Palmer design.

And Westwood will be wary of the likes of US Open champion Angel Cabrera, who has a great record at the K Club.

The big Argentine has six top-10s from 11 European Open starts, opening with a 66 on he Smurfit Course last year on his way to 17th place.

He was eighth behind Goosen in 2004 and given his form, he has the game to follow in the South African's footsteps by winning at the K Club on his return from a US Open victory.

(Short chips)

You too can chip and putt like Phil Mickelson.

Well, you might have a chance if you sign up for lessons at the first Dave Pelz Short Game Academy at Killeen Castle.

The new Jack Nicklaus designed course at Dunshaughlin in Co Meath is set to open in April next year.

And Pelz will be there next week to explain his plans for his first foray into Europe and the secrets that made Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Steve Elkington and Mike Weir major champions.

(Woods short workout)

Tiger Woods reckons his wife Elin could "smoke" him in a long-distance road race.

Not that the former model will be doing too much running over the next few months as the couple are kept busy looking after new arrival Sam Alexis.

But Woods, who has talked about tailoring practice sessions around being a father, knows who wears the sweat-pants on the road.

Wood told Men's Fitness magazine: "She's a runner, just like I am. There's no doubt I'm faster than she is, but there's no doubt she can run a lot longer than I can.

"She can keep her pace up forever. It's frustrating because I like to go for speed, and she can go all day. If we were doing a half-marathon, she'd smoke me."

Woods' trainer Keith Kleven revealed that the world No 1 has added nearly 30 lbs of muscle since he left Stanford University in 1996.

Kleven said: "Pound for pound, I put him with any athlete in the world. His endurance and strength allows us to do more reps at high levels than normally seen in a golfer."

Tiger's workout routine is built around stretching up to 40 minutes before each session, core exercises, endurance runs of seven miles and speed runs of three miles, along with weight training.

At 6 feet 2 he was a wiry 11 stone 4 lbs when he left college but now weighs in nearly three stone heavier at 13 stone 3lbs.

(McGinley in The Swing)

If there are traffic jams on the Hollystown Roundabout on Monday morning - blame Paul McGinley!

The Ryder Cup star has been invited to unveil a golf-themed sculpture by Kerry-born artist Alan Ryan Hall.

The artwork - known as "The Swing" - has been commissioned by Hollystown Golf Club, the 54-hole complex just off the N2 Ashbourne Road.

(Burger joint)

Earlier this year, a man drowned in the US retrieving a ball from a water hazard.

Now a Tennessee resident has had a lucky escape after almost losing an arm in a battle with a one-eyed alligator in Florida.

Bruce Burger, 50, was trying to retrieve his ball from a pond on the sixth hole at the Lake Venice Golf Club.

The alligator latched on to Burger's right forearm and pulled him in the pond but Burger used his left arm to beat the reptile until it freed him.

Burger was not seriously injured but it still took wildlife officials an hour to trap the beast, which measured 10 feet 11 inches.