Getting quickly back into the groove didn’t prove to be a problem for Darren Clarke last year when he shot the lights out and finished second to Retief Goosen in the Africa Open.

But as he embarks on his 20th European Tour season in the now dual-sanctioned Sunshine Tour event, the big Ulsterman is setting off into the unknown in terms of his own game and the sport as a whole.

Since Tiger Woods crashed his car in November and announced he was taking an indefinite break from the game, golf has thrown up many questions that can only be answered when the circus rolls on without him this week in the SBS Open in Hawaii and the latest co-sanctioned event on the now global European Tour schedule.

Who will fill Woods spikes? How will the ban on square grooves change the golfing landscape? What about the Ryder Cup. Will Rory McIlroy make it in the US. Can Padraig Harrington win another major or two? Will the Race to Dubai survive the downturn?

Clarke is one of five Irish professionals going into action at East London Golf Club today alongside Q-School graduates Simon Thornton and Gary Murphy, Ulster’s Michael Hoey and Challenge Tour player Niall Kearney, who is making his tour debut on a sponsor’s invitation.

As for CLarke, it is a huge year in terms of his future as an elite player. 

The 41-year old Dungannon man came close to winning for the third time in eight months at East London last year before settling for a share of second behind Retief Goosen with Hoey and two South Africans.

It looked like the start of a promising season but Clarke, who was denied a 2008 Ryder Cup wildcard by Nick Faldo. His putting was poor in 2009, however and he would rack up just three top 10s and fail to make the 60-man field for the inaugural Dubai World Championship by one place in the Race to Dubai rankings.

There are now 32 European players ahead of world number 114 Clarke in the Official World Golf ranking and he’s hoping that the change in the rule on grooves will give a ball-striker of his quality a small edge over the rest in what promises to be a fascinating year.

“There will be more emphasis on keeping the ball in the fairway as well as shaping shots,” Clarke said.  “Trajectory will be more important than spin and the ball strikers and shot makers are going to benefit. Hopefully I'll be among them because I really do applaud the decision.”

However, Clarke will have to wait a while longer to test that theory and the European Tour has decided not to postpone the implementation of the new rule banning square grooves until after next week’s Joburg Open as players struggle to get their hands on the new equipment in some parts of the world.

That means they can still use the soon to be banned U grooves this week but Clarke won’t care too much as he tries to barge his way into the reckoning for a sixth Ryder Cup cap under Montgomerie in October.

“I missed it the last time when I thought I had a good chance and I desperately want to get back on the team again," Clarke said at East London Golf Club.

"I am playing here so I can get off to a good start this year. I like the golf course, which is pretty obvious after last year, and I want to get this season off to a fast start.

"This year I just want to get back in the winners' circle again. I didn't win at all last year and I had a pretty poor year so I want to get back to winning ways."

Harrington, McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Damien McGrane will not return to action for couple of weeks while Peter Lawrie and Gareth Maybin will kick off their season’s in Joburg next week.

Weather permitting, McIlroy and Shane Lowry will be at the Irish Golf Writers' annual banquet and awards at AIB Bank Centre in Dublin tonight to pick up the Professional and Amateur of the Year awards.

On Friday, Paul McGinley will be the GUI's guest of honour at the annual Champions Dinner, which will be held at Carton House in honour of last year's amateur champions.