Darren Clarke walks up the 18th in Killarney. Photo Phil Inglis/www.golffile.ieDarren Clarke shook off his Open hangover and a shaky start to finish like a champion and keep Indian ace Jeev Milkha Singh in his sights.

The Ulsterman delighted in being announced as Open champion on the first tee but ended up pushing his opening drive into a water hazard and started with a bogey.

But as Singh scorched around Killarney in eight under 63 to lead by two, the Claret Jug winner birdied two of his last three holes for a 69 that keeps his hopes of a famous double alive.

Thrilled by the reception he got from an 18,000 crowd, Clarke insisted that he’s in Killarney for the trophy, not the beer.

Putting his Open celebrations behind him, he said: “The crowds were magnificent today.  They were really good and they have been absolutely brilliant to me.

“But it was always going to be a serious sort of week.  I didn’t come down here to make up the numbers.  

“I want to come down here and play well.  Today is not bad.  There’s room for improvement, so I’ll go to the range now and work on a couple of things and hopefully come out even better for tomorrow morning.”

Playing partner Shane Lowry shot 74 on a mixed day for the Irish but Clarke was upbeat about his game and proud of his finish.

He birdied the par-five seventh to get back to level par, holed a seven footer at the ninth to get into red figures and then came back from a bogey at the 13th with birdies at the 16th and 17th.

It could have been even better had an eight foot chance fallen at the last but he was pleased to go from strength to strength thanks to the encouragement of his home fans.

Shrugging off a cold, he said: “I’m not quite a hundred per cent. My self-inflicted flu has not quite gone away yet. But that’s no excuse.  I’m feeling good enough to play well.

“To tell you the truth, winning the Open has not quite a hundred per cent sunk in yet.  It’s almost like Open Champion is, wow, hasn’t quite got there.

“I was a little bit of rusty early on because I had last week off doing other things. But then I finished a little bit stronger again, gave myself a lot of really good chances out there.

“I was a little disappointed not to make the one on the last after hitting two good shots in there.  But overall, two under is not a bad start at all.

“What pleased me most is that I finished strongly.  I could easily have finished birdie, birdie, birdie, because I hit a great six-iron into the last and hit a really great putt and slightly mis-read it.”

Colm Moriarty finished the day as the best of the Irish, just four behind Singh after a super 67 with Clarke, Michael Hoey, Damien McGrane and amateur Paul Cutler all shooting 69s.

Walker Cup hopeful Cutler, 22, made a dream start when he holed a wedge from 133 yards at the first for an eagle two.

He said: “It was the best way to start the day. I turned away so I didn’t see it go in, but the roar told me the news.”

But the real star of the day was Singh, 39, who had an eagle and six birdies in his 63 to lead by two from Frenchman Alexandre Kaleka and by three from former US Open champion Michael Campbell, Swede Christian Nilsson and Germany’s Marcel Siem.

Needing to finish with four birdies for the tour’s first 59, Singh parred his way home instead.

Singh said: “I don’t know whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, but 59 did cross my mind.”

The 39 year old is now outside the world’s top 200 after suffering shoulder and back injuries last season but he was delighted with his start.

Hopeful his injury problems are behind him, he said: “If I stay fit, I feel I can get back into the world’s Top-50.”

While Singh was on son, former US Open winner Graeme McDowell complained of a stiff back as he posted a one over par 72 that left him in the bottom half of the field.

But he insisted that there were no alarm bells ringing and joked that he planned to cure himself with “a couple medicinal pints tonight.”

Still believing he can contend, McDowell said: “Lower back stiffness is something that I feel from time to time, it generally loosens out but didn’t really loosen out this morning and I got a little stuck because of it with a few iron shots.  

“I wasn’t clearing my body very well.  But there are no alarm bells. I must have slept funny.”

The Portrush man hit just six fairways, adding: “It was a funny day.  I didn’t really hit it in the fairway enough times today.  

“I just wasn’t missing it by much, but you know, a couple of yards just kind of took the control out of my hands coming into the greens.  

“The golf course is playing a lot longer this year, not as much fire in the fairways and you can tell by the scoring that it’s not quite as straightforward as it was last year.  

“You go into the greens with a lot more club in your hand and just didn’t make much on the greens, either.  It was a mediocre day all around.”