Crocked Darren Clarke insists he’ll play “on a zimmer frame” if that’s what it takes to make the Irish Open a massive success and boost the chances of bringing The Open back to Royal Portrush.
The Open champion, 43, this week pulled out of the Scandinavian Masters and the US Open because of a chronic groin strain.
But the adopted Portrush man will be in cotton wool for the next month to make sure he gets to the first tee for the June 28 start of what organisers say will be the best attended event on the European Tour this year after The Open itself.
Crowds of over 100,000 are expected to flock to the north Antrim links for the first Irish Open at Royal Portrush since 1947 and the first in Ulster for nearly 60 years.
“I’d probably play on a zimmer frame if I had to,” said Clarke, who has yet to make a cut this year. “But hopefully I will be fine. I’ll do everything I can to be fit and ready for playing here. I’ve been playing through a bit of pain since Houston and I’m not used to being injured.
“It was one of those sort of things because I haven’t been playing so well, I wanted to keep on playing but enough’s enough.
“I’ve got to draw a line under it and try and get myself fit and ready to play, so hopefully I’ll do everything I can to be ready for it.”
With a prize fund of €2m this year, the Irish Open is not one of the elite events in terms of cash.
But while it is still without a title sponsor, the tour has attracted a host of official partners in Heineken, Bushmills Whiskey, BMW, Dale Farm, Moy Park foods, Emirates Airlines, Ballygowan, financial group Brewin Dolphin as well as official charity Clic Sargent.
The prize fund was slashed from €3m under 3 Mobile to just €1.5m in Killarney last year but Clarke is adamant that with a host of major champions chasing a €2m pot on one of the world’s great courses, it’s one of the game’s elite events.
He said: “It’s tough times, we all know that. A €2 million purse is not to be sniffed at. Look at how 3 came in pushed the prize fund up to possibly unrealistic terms at the time, now what we have is a culmination of sponsors getting behind.
“I think we’ve done unbelievably well to get it to what it is now. What we have right now is a wonderful achievement.”
With Clarke and fellow Irish major winners Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington set to be joined by US PGA winner Keegan Bradley and the cream of European golf, the field is one of the strongest on tour.
Clarke said: “The interest from the players on Tour has been phenomenal. They’re all asking about it and can’t wait to get here.”
The tournament will be a 27,000 sell out on Saturday and Sunday with at least another 40,000 fans expected to turn out from Tuesday to Friday.
And Clarke knows that the R&A will be keeping a close eye on the event with a view to taking the Open back to Portrush for the first time since Max Faulkner triumphed in 1951.
“I think this is obviously a stepping stone towards the bigger goal of getting the Open back again,” Clarke said. “I am sure I wouldn’t be so foolish as to say the R&A won’t be paying attention because I am sure that they will.
“Knowing Royal Portrush and everyone involved here they will be doing everything to make this tournament go as smoothly as possible.
“And I’m sure the Monday after the Irish Open the R&A will take a look and say that was a properly run tournament, we’ve got to take another serious look at taking the Open there.
“No doubt there’ll be a few people trying to sneak in off the beach - there always is at Irish Opens but I’m sure all plans are in place.”
Consistently ranked among the top 10 courses in the world, Clarke expects the Dunluce Links to pose a major test if a 20 mph wind blows.
The tour is believed to be planning a set up that will produce eagles and birdies and Clarke doesn’t care what score wins.
He said: “We are making our living out of it but we are also in the entertainment industry. People want to come and see us making birdies and eagles and that’s fine by me.
“Some of the course where you have four and five under doesn’t appeal to me. If it is 20 under great, if it blows 20 miles an hour and 10 under wins that’s fine too.
“It has stood the test of time, albeit with a few new tees but nothing has been done all that much with the greens, and the course is very natural. It’s one of the best layouts of any links you’ll find in the world.
“It’s tough but fair. You can get some that are tough and some that are fair but you rarely get the two together.”
The Irish Open will return to Carton House next year but tour spokesman James Finnigan believes it will return north again soon.
“If all things go well with the consultation process, we want to come back,” Finnigan said
As for a title sponsor, the tour is hopeful that a major international company that visited Killarney last year, or a new pretender, or one of this year’s secondary sponsors, might step up to plate.
The Darren Clarke Foundation has joined forces with The Tour Players’ Foundation, the charitable foundation of the European Tour in support of the Official Charity of the 2012 Irish Open – CLIC Sargent.
The UK’s leading cancer charity for children and young people, CLIC Sargent provide clinical, practical and emotional support for young cancer patients and their families, from diagnosis onwards.
The charity will be the beneficiaries of the 2012 Irish Open Birdie Pledge that will see The Tour Players’ Foundation and the Darren Clarke Foundation each donate £10 per birdie, £20 per eagle and £50 per albatross scored during the four rounds of the Irish Open.
A European Tour event produces an average of 1500 birdies, meaning CLIC Sargent could be in line to receive over £30,000 by the end of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club from June 28 – July 1.