"Tiger was awesome. He just ripped it" - Clarke

“Same old same old” was a recurring lament from Darren Clarke during his reign as Open champion.

As the bard said, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

The pressure of trying to live up to the mantle was taking its toll on the Dungannon man as travelled the world and the putts slipped by the hole and he missed cut after cut.

Yet as he counts down the hours to the moment when he must had back the Claret Jug to the R&A on Monday morning, the 43-year old has come to realise that the “same old” Darren Clarke is not a bad thing to be.

It’s a thought brought home to him by talk of his old pal Tiger Woods, who will arrive at Royal Lytham and St Annes looking more like his old self than ever following three PGA Tour wins this season.

Few players know what it feels like to take on Woods ‘mano a mano’ and beat him. Beat him soundly by 4 and 3, as Clarke did in the final of the Accenture Match Play in San Diego in 2000.

They shared the same coach at the time, Butch Harmon, and have always been great pals. So Woods left a cheeky note on his locker after the final which read: “Enjoy it, you fat f***!”

He was referring to Clarke’s beefy figure, of course, a shape he earned the hard way by eating as much as he wanted, drinking as many pints of stout as he liked and smoking cigars costing more than most people spend on decent suit.

No wonder Woods now refers to Clarke as “Double F”.

Clarke’s pint-drinking celebrations are now legendary. The down-in-one pint he polished off on the balcony of The K Club following his heroic Ryder Cup performance in the wake of his wife Heather’s tragic death in 2006 was beamed around the world to millions.

Five years later he was cradling another Guinness in the media centre at Sandwich with the Claret Jug on the table in front of him. He laughed.

“I’m on Weight Watchers tomorrow morning,” he said. “I think it’s a really bad week to start.”

That everyman image is part of the reason why he’s so popular with fans in every corner of the globe. But it’s also an attitude that helps him play his best stuff

Even he knew that the diet wouldn’t last. By Christmas he was off on a new fad, having his eyes tested and pumping iron under the orders of personal trainer Jonny Bloomfield in an attempt to extend his career into his late forties.

Six months later and the trainer has gone - the travelling proved too much - and 43-year Clarke, his hair now a steely grey, has put back on the pounds again.

He’ll still do some fitness work - “light bits to keep ticking over. I’m not going to be Westwood” - but insists that he’s always punched better in the heavyweight division, which is something Woods knows all too well.

“People say yes you should be fitter, you should be in better shape, yes it’s supposed to be better for you mentally and all of that sort of crap,” Clarke explained. “But if I look back at some of my best golf, I’ve always been a little bit on the big side.

“Would I like to be on the lighter side and play my best? Of course I would. But it hasn’t really worked for me before.”

With three wins this year, Woods is also looking like his old self again.

And as he expects Tiger to challenge for Open glory, Clarke would love nothing better than an Open duel with his old pal, insisting: “I would LOVE to be playing with Tiger Woods next Sunday. Why? Because he’s always up there!”

There’s huge mutual respect between the two men and when Woods was forced to sit out last year’s Open through injury, he bombarded his Irish friend with texts of encouragement and advice.

Clarke knows there will be no texts from Tiger this year as the former No 1 goes in search of his 15th major and his first since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.  The Woods he saw win the amateur medal at Royal Lytham in 1996 is close to his best again.

Recalling the first two rounds alongside a 20-year old Woods that year, Clarke said: “I was seriously impressed.

“It was my first time playing with Tiger Woods. He was awesome. He just ripped it.

“He hit some shots in the wind that you said, ‘Wow’. Not many make me say that, but he did.

“It wasn’t just one shot. There were lots of them. It was everything about him, he looked so good, he looked so fluid.

“I hit a couple of good drives and he was up after me and he hit it 70 yards past me.

“And I thought, ‘F*** have I missed that or what’s going on here?’ We got on great from that day forward.”

Clarke was 11th in that Open with Woods taking 22nd place before going on to turn professional.

The American won the following year’s Masters Tournament by a record margin and set off on an amazing major winning streak that only came to a halt with that 2009 sex scandal and divorce.

Clarke has always been supportive and reckons the former No 1 is close to his very best again.

“I have been in touch with him a bit recently. He’s playing very well again, which is great to see,” he said. “The game needs him to play well again, doesn’t it? It’s a better game with him playing well than not. And the way that he is winning as well….

“The only thing that seems to be slightly missing is the consistency that he used to have, but that’s obviously what he is building back to.

“Three wins since the start of this year after all the grief he was getting? And with his knowledge of how to play links golf? He will be right up there [at Lytham]. He is always right up there.”

Clarke made his first halfway cut of the year in the Irish Open two weeks ago before a late quadruple bogey eight in the second round of the French Open undid all his good work.

Despite that missed cut, he goes to Sandwich in a far better place mentally than last year, when he was in despair about his game, arriving fuzzy headed after a drinking session that started in Inverness and continued on the train to Kent and for another 24 hours after that.

What’s important to him is that he nows that he has what it takes to close out a Major and while his performances as Open champion have left a lot to be desired, he puts that down to over-trying, not lack of ambition.

“It’s not because I have rested on my laurels, thinking ‘that’s it, I’m done.’ It’s because I have been practicing too hard and wanting more,” he said

“I have gone completely the other way. I want more, I want more, I want more. And I am working myself into the ground.”

Missing the US Open and four weeks of the season with a groin injury was not what Clarke had in mind this year.

But his enforced break has turned out to be a blessing in disguise and he’s raring to go again after showing signs of form following that enforced break.

“I’m really looking forward to it and I would have taken this mindset a couple of months ago,” Clarke said at Portrush this week. “I was tired, run-down, I was guarding against getting through the ball properly because of my groin.

“Hindsight’s a wonderful thing and I should have taken a little bit of time off earlier.  But being the thick, stubborn bloke I am I said no, I’m not going to be a wimp, just keep on playing, it’s just a niggling groin injury.

“I wanted to keep playing to play myself into some form. Unfortunately it wasn’t happening so I can had to come to the decisions to take some time off.

“And what was my priority this year? It was the Open Championship. So I had to take time off then. And I’ve had a wonderful time at home, resting and practising a little bit and I’ve come back refreshed and ready to go.”

Can he win the Open again? Clarke believes he can. Links is his domain.

“If I was to go to the Open next week and play well and get myself into contention, would I be surprised? No. I’ve done it before,” he said

What the future holds remains to be seen but if he relinquishes the title, it might be a chance to draw a line in the sand and move on with the rest of his career, unencumbered by expectation.

“Possiby. But I’ve had a wonderful year as Open champion, I really have,” he said. “And to be announced on the tees as Open champion around the world, not many players get that honour. And I’ve looked at it as an unbelievable honour… Whether I suddenly start playing great after The Open, we’ll see. The mind’s a funny thing, especially mine, and it might be. I couldn’t say no.”