Could this be the week when Darren Clarke finally begins his assault on the summit of world golf? Experience counts for a great deal but the Ulsterman knows all too well that youth and ambition will be tough to beat in this week’s Joburg Open at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington.
The 42-year old is enjoying one of the happiest periods of his life away from the tour following his recently announced engagement to former beauty queen Alison Campbell and his move home to Portrush, where he now plays golf regularly with his two sons. But as he battles to claw his way back into the elite from 108th in the world, the five-time Ryder Cup star knows that it is getting harder all the time as new blood comes out on tour.
The third highest ranked player in the field behind world No 32 Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and 74th ranked English star Danny Willett, Clarke said: “Experience is very good but you still have to perform because of the quality of the youngsters coming through.
“They feel they can win any week, their standard is improving every year. They’re hungrier than ever before and they have the games to go with that.”
The question is: How long can an old gunslinger like Clarke survive in a golfing wild west populated by young guns itching to make a name for themselves?
Tellingly, his ambition at the start of the season has been the same for the past four years - to get back into the world’s top 50 so that he can at least give himself the chance to win the major that would make his career complete.
In 2006, he began his campaign ranked 18th in the world but following the tragic loss of his wife, Heather, to breast cancer in August that year and despite his Ryder Cup heroics at The K Club, he began 2007 at 40th in the rankings and fell to 229th in January 2008.
Clarke won twice on the European Tour in that 2008 season, but the second of those victories (in the KLM Open) only moved him up to 56th in the world and was not enough to convince European captain Nick Faldo to give him a Ryder Cup wildcard for the matches at Valhalla in Kentucky.
He would never admit it, but you get the feeling that Clarke died a little inside with that decision and he has never been the same since. By the time the 2009 season began, he was 70th in the world and while he played in all the majors bar the Masters that year, he recorded just three top-10 finishes in Europe and rang in the New Year as the world No 113.
To add insult to injury, he finished 61st in the inaugural Race to Dubai standings and missed out on a place in the season-ending Dubai World Championship by just €28,395.
Clarke’s 2010 campaign was far from a vintage one for a man who counts two World Golf Championships among his 20 wins worldwide. He had a chance to win the Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond but took 76 in the final round and finished second to Eduardo Molinari.
His chief malaise has always been the putter and while he showed some improvement in that department last season, finishing 30th in the Race to Dubai, he struggled on his 2011 debut in last week’s Africa Open.
“At the Africa Open, my driving accuracy was very good, my driving distance was very good and my greens-in-regulation was very good. But the rest of my game was a bit off,” Clarke said in Johannesburg. “I had too many putts, the greens in East London were tough to read, especially if you missed a couple of putts early on. I’ll need my putter to warm up and it wasn’t too bad today.”
Clarke added: “I’m trying to work my way back up the world rankings into the top 50 and South Africa has been really good to me.”
His words will sound familiar to Irish golf fans, who have been waiting for the big Dungannon man to recpature the kind of form that has helped him win over €18 million on the European Tour since 1991.
His manager, Chubby Chandler, believes the man who put his International Sports Management agency on the map is due to reap the rewards for his hard work in 2011.
“A special mention now for Darren Clarke, whose new campaign started with a 26th place finish,” he wrote in Chubby’s Corner, his weekly column on the ISM website. “I can’t help thinking that 2011 will be one of his best years, all the more so since he has found total happiness in his private life with the announcement of his engagement to Alison Campbell.”
Youth might have its fling in Jobug this week, where Gareth Maybin and Challenge Tour regular Colm Moriarty are also taking part. But Clarke still has the long game and the hunger to get back into the big time again. As usual, his fate will depend on his luck with the putter.