From Brian Keogh in Detroit
Darren Clarke is back with the big boys and determined to battle Padraig Harrington for US PGA glory at Oakland Hills.
After missing the Masters, the US Open and the Open, the five-time Ryder Cup star got back into the big time when he scorched to sixth place in last week’s WGC Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.
Now he can’t wait to take on the course they call “The Monster” and blast his way past the likes of Harrington and favourite Phil Mickelson and into the reckoning for Nick Faldo’s European team.
Clarke said: “I've missed this sort of event all year, the majors and the World Golf Championships events. It's been great back playing them again and I felt very comfortable last week in Akron.
“This is where I want to play, this is what I want to do. I want to get more opportunities to play like I did at Firestone.
“If I’m going to make the Ryder Cup team, I’ve still got to play well. If I don’t play really well in the next few weeks, there’s no way I would merit a pick. I’ve just got to try and play as well as I can this week and see what happens.”
A lowly 241st in the world earlier this season, Clarke started his climb back to the top with victory in Shanghai in March and is now 87th thanks to his Firestone performance.
And while he’s still mourning his wife Heather, who died two years ago, he believes he is now an even better player than the man she watched in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills
He said: “Things have changed obviously since the last time I was here. I wasn’t here on my own, was I? I am a better player now than I was then, even though my scores and my golf wouldn’t quite suggest it.
“My swing is better. I’m a bit more calm than I have been. All round, I’m probably a little bit better.
“I have good memories of Oakland Hills but the par threes are lot more difficult that they were in the Ryder Cup. Obviously the rough is a little thicker that it was then and the greens are obviously they are very, very tricky because of the slopes.”
Mickelson is the betting favourite to take advantage of the absence of the injured Tiger Woods and lift his fourth Major title.
But Clarke is full of admiration for Dubliner Harrington and confessed that he has been inspired to work even harder after watching him win the Open for the second time at Royal Birkdale.
He said: “I watched Padraig win and the golf he played on that back nine on Sunday was sensational. I mean it was incredible to watch.
“After the struggle that he’d gone through, to be as mentally strong as he was to play the golf he played down the stretch was fantastic to see. It was thoroughly deserved.
“Part of watching has been tough but a lot of it has been egging me on a little to work a bit harder.”
Harrington’s laid back approach has also rubbed off on Clarke, who believes he plays his best golf when he relaxes and lets it happen rather than trying too hard.
He said: “Last week I was very calm and relaxed and wandered around the golf course and invariably that’s when I play as well as I can - whenever I take everything much slower, when I hit it and find it and hit it again.
“I don’t always get myself into that way of doing things but it is when I play my best. I did it last week and I hope to do it again this week and see where it takes me.”