Woods predicts Clarke revival

By Brian Keogh

Tiger Woods got it spot on.

After hearing of Darren Clarke's first top five finish for 18 months in December's South African Open, the world No 1 predicted big things for his Irish pal and his two young boys in 2008.

Woods said: "I think now they're just starting to see the game turn around and I think he's going to make some nice strides this year."

Just five weeks later Clarke came up trumps in the Joburg Open, contending for victory before eventually finishing fourth behind play-off winner Richard Sterne.

The Dungannon man, 39, has been living in his own personal nightmare since his wife Heather passed away from breast cancer in August 2006.

Clarke's reward is a jump of 25-places to 204th in the latest world rankings - his first major improvement for nearly two years.

And he confessed that he feels a lot more like his old self after battling back from an opening 73 with rounds of 65, 67 and 68 to finish just two shots outside a play-off on 11 under par.

He said: "I played well and I feel like the player I was half a dozen years ago, when I was in the world's top 10.

"I hit the ball well and three birdies in the last five holes suggests I've still got quite a bit of fight in me.

"Everything I've been working on seems to be coming together and I really feel like a golfer again."

Clarke was ranked 24th in the world when he stood up on the first tee in the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club and striped his drive 300 yards down the middle.

He stiffed his approach and birdied the hole on his way to a 100 percent winning record in the biennial matches.

His achievement of winning three points out of three for skipper Ian Woosnam was all the more remarkable considering the fact that he had buried his wife just a month before the matches.

The Ryder Cup is a huge part of his plans again this season as he bids to make Nick Faldo's side and earn his sixth cap at Valhalla in September.

The Ulsterman still has a long way to go to make Europe's 12-man team but the €58,010 he earned on Sunday lifted him to 55th in the European Ryder Cup Points List with eight months for the qualifying campaign still to go.

Clarke added: "I've definitely turned a corner. It's a Ryder Cup year and I've got everything to play for."

Written off a major force after crashing out to Sergio Garcia in the first round of last February's Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, Clarke can't wait to prove his critics wrong.

He looks unlikely to make the world's top 64 in time to qualify for the matchplay leg of the World Golf Championships series this year.

But he will have two golden opportunities to rack up massive world ranking points as he tees off in the first of three European Tour events in the gulf in this week's Abu Dhabi Championship.

Set to skip next week's Qatar Masters, he will be reunited with pal Woods in Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Classic in two weeks time.

Winning majors is still top of Clarke's hit-list and he sees no reason why he can't get his name on one before he hangs up his spikes.

Speaking late last year, Clarke asked: "When did Mark O’Meara win his first major? When he was 41? And Vijay? There are guys that won majors in their 40s.

"I am not 40 quite yet. I have another year to go and I just want to get my game back to a level where I can contend in tournaments and win tournaments. And then, when that is the case I can then think about the bigger ones. I still have no doubt that my good golf is good enough to win any tournament, whatever that may be.

"The list of guys who’ve won majors in their 40s isn’t that long, that’s true. But it is still possible. I am going to keep on going, putting the time in and see where it gets me. We’ll see.

"I am practising to get better, not to stay where I am at and one of these days the work that I am putting in is going to pay off."

Sunday's result was a major step in a right direction.