Darren Clarke made a cut for the first time this year and insisted he’s finding form in the nick of time for his Open defence at Royal Lytham.
A three under 69 left the Tyrone man eight shots off the Irish Open pace on four under in front of a sell-out 27,000 crowd at his adopted home of Royal Portrush.
But the Open champion insisted there was no sense of relief as he finally showed a few glimpses of the form that saw him capture the Claret Jug in such memorable style last year.
“I would never say it was a relief just to make the cut – I set my sights a lot higher than that,” Clarke said. “I want to play better than that. It’s okay, but I know the course like the back of my hand. I’ve played better.
“But if I’m honest the four weeks I had to take off because of my groin injury have been a blessing in disguise.
“I have had a wonderful break, not through choice, but I’ve had a wonderful four weeks just relaxing. I feel refreshed and ready to go.
“I’ve played OK these past two days, but I’ve been lacking a big of the sharpness you only get from playing plenty of competitive golf.
“I’ve made too many stupid mistakes that have led to silly bogeys - having some time away means I’m not quite tournament sharp. And that’s why the mistakes creep in.
“But in terms of getting ready to defend my Open title at Royal Lytham I’ve definitely seen some very encouraging signs.
“Another couple of rounds should help get those mistakes down, and I’m feeling confident for Lytham
“You know what I’m like. I never worry what anyone else thinks - you didn’t give me much chance of winning it last year did you?”
Clarke made a sparkling start – after teeing off on the tenth he birdied three of his first six holes.
The front nine was where most of the field were making their scores, but the big Ulsterman struggled, sandwiching a birdie at the second hole with bogeys at the first and seventh.
He finished on a high note with a fifth birdie on the long ninth, earning an enormous cheer after he sank a slippery twenty footer.
He added: “That was fun – I just wish I’d done a bit more of that recently.
“I’ve had one of the best years of my life off the golf course and a bit of a struggle on it, but that’s golf. Whether that’s to do with being Open champion or not, whatever.
“I’ve had a tough time scoring and concentrating, but I’ve tried to fulfil my role as Open champion as best I can, which I have done in quite a few places around the world.”