Clarke turns the corner

From Brian Keogh in Tulsa

The world’s toughest jobs include occupations such as salt miner, killer bee remover and alligator wrangler.

Until the second round of the US PGA Championship at Southern Hills, they also included Billy Foster’s role as caddie to the tempestuous Darren Clarke.

A plain-talking Yorkshireman, Foster has a rhinoceros-like skin after toting the clubs for volcanic employers such as Seve Ballesteros and Thomas Bjorn. But his relationship with Clarke goes beyond mere work and he took immense satisfaction from watching the beleaguered Ulsterman turn a major corner in his career with a second round 66 in furnace-like conditions in south Tulsa.

“I never stopped biting his head off all the way round,” Foster explained after the boss had made a miraculous recovery from his opening 77 to make just his first cut in a major since last season’s US Open. “I was saying to him: We're sick of losing, we're sick of losing. Do me a favour today. Do it for yourself and do it for me. I want you to shoot the lowest round of the day.”

Clarke did manage to equal the best round of the day - until Tiger Woods came with a hairsbreadth of carding the first 62 in major championship history.

But his 66 must have felt like a 59 after a year of nightmare proportions following the death of his wife Heather on 13th August 2006.

The Dungannon man turns 39 on Tuesday next, just 24 hours after the first anniversary of his wife’s death. Friday, 10th August could prove to be another significant milestone.

Soaked in sweat, he almost bounded up the steps of the Southern Hills clubhouse after carding what he believes is “big, big” round in terms of his golfing future. Then, he stopped near the top, lit up a fag and beamed with satisfaction.

“Today I played as good as I've played in a very, very, very long time,” said Clarke. “It was pretty big for me after the year I have had. On a course that tough. You need a round like that to remind you that you can do it.

“I have had a terrible year but I have worked and worked and worked. So to go out and do it on a golf course like that and play as well as I did was satisfying. It was by no means a lucky 66.

“Of course I have pride. I don't want to keep on missing cuts, do I? Am a better player than these scores I’ve been making? Yes, my close circle of friends tell me that all the time. You guys know that, I know that. It is a difficult thing. It is a difficult thing I have had to deal with. But golf was enjoyable today.”

Asked if one round could really make a difference, Clarke said: “I think so. I was a bit down to say the least last night but I am just working away and it feels nice to go out there on a difficult golf course and shoot four under par. Hopefully I am on the right road again and I will put some good results in shortly.

“Yesterday I hit a few poor shots and made a few double bogeys from the middle of the fairway which hurt a lot. I am looking forward now, from being a little despondent on Thursday to be looking forward to getting out there again.”

A lowly 144th in the world, Clarke has entered 22 strokeplay tournaments since he returned to the fairways a fortnight before last year’s Ryder Cup at The K Club. But the results make painful reading: Top 10s, none. Missed cuts, 10. Withdrawals, 4. Best finish, tied 19th.

If he doesn’t get back into the world’s top 50 before the end of March next year, he will not be playing in the Masters. As it is, he only got to play the Open and the US PGA this season thanks to his Ryder Cup credentials and failed to pre-qualify for the US Open at Oakmont.

The key to Clarke’s round wasn’t just the way he shaped the ball beautifully off the tee or followed bogeys with birdies but a spectacular two at the 245-yard eighth and a glorious, cut four iron from 197 yards to 15 feet at the 18th.

Foster explained. “The eighth was huge. It was a three-wood shot but he knuckled a hard-drawing five-wood to three and a half feet and that showed that he was proper back, I thought. When he bogeyed nine, I thought it might change his mindset.

“But I just kept getting in his ear, taking his attention off making the cut and tried to make him think of shooting the best round of the day. Make his fellow peers say, ‘Fair play to you Clarkey’.”

Clarke’s future may be uncertain. But the magic is still there.