As Dunbar takes first steps, Chubby pushes Clarke for PGA Tour return

Alan Dunbar hits his tee shot at the 7th in Tuesday’s practice round at Augusta National. Pic via Frank Casey Jnr/rosapenna.ieChubby Chandler might be quietly mapping out the future of British Amateur champion Alan Dunbar but he’s also working hard to give struggling Darren Clarke “a new lease of life” by persuading him to rejoin the PGA Tour next season and avoid the “soul-destroying” grind of the early season European Tour schedule.

The 44-year old Dungannon man, who missed his second major with injury since winning the Open when he withdrew from the Masters with a hamstring tear, is fully exempt on the US circuit until the end of 2016 thanks to his 2011 win at Sandwich.

Clarke has had a torrid time since that emotional day in Kent, sliding from 30th in the world to 223rd this week and playing well below his best.

This year he has teed it up just three events - in South Africa, Abu Dhabi and India - and Chandler wants him to avoid the morale-sapping prospect of sharing the practice ground with dozens of unknown young guns in Europe and take advantage of his golden years by playing more on the PGA Tour.

“I think he might well take up his PGA Tour membership up next year,” said the ISM boss. “What he would have played in compared to what he has played? It’s just so different.

“He’s played the Tshwane Open in India and he has a full exemption in the US. He could have played events like the Honda or San Diego and he doesn’t have to move to the US either.

“He can do it in two or three-week spells and still have a base at Old Palm in Florida or even at Grand Abaco in the Bahamas, which is his favourite place in the world and only 40 minutes from West Palm Beach.

Graeme McDowell and Alan Dunbar skim balls to the par-three 16th on Tuesday. Pic via Frank Casey Jnr/“I think it would be great for him and give him a new lease of life and it’s what I wanted him to do this year.

“It must be soul-destroying for him to get on a practice tee in Europe with a whole load of young lads from Iceland and Finland. It’s a hard thing.  At least here over here he knows the guys and they all know him. Guys like Rickie Fowler…”

Clarke’s form has dipped considerably since his Open win and in the six majors, including this week’s Masters, that have been staged post-Sandwich he has missed three cuts and withdrawn twice before the start with injuries.

“I feel sorry for him this week because he has practiced hard,” Chandler said. “He is 44 and you don’t have many more opportunities like this. He’s missed two of the majors already since he won the Open. You want to be playing.”

As for Dunbar, the 22-year old joined Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and their girlfriend/caddies Caroline Wozniacki and Kristin Stape in the par-three contest on the eve of the tournament with his mind firmly focussed on putting in a good performance in his last appearance before turning professional.

“It’s great. It’s Augusta,” said the Rathmore man. “It’s great. It’s Augusta. I just came down and played a round on Sunday with John Carr and some other members.”

Gesturing to the huge crowds gathered in front of the clubhouse and beyone, he said: “It was nice to come down and play before all the crowds got here and all this happens.”

He’s staying with the other five amateurs in the Crow’s Nest and thoroughly enjoyed his drive down Magnolia Lane.

“It was quite nice. We drove quite slow,” said the Portrush native, who has Ian Woosnam’s former caddie, Portsmouth’s Lee Adelly, on his bag.

As for the course, he impressed Irishman Carr with his play on Sunday, hitting the 15th with a drive and a five iron.

Will Darren Clarke head for the PGA Tour in 2014? Chubby Chandler believes it would give him a new lease of life. Fran Caffrey/“The greens are very severe - a wee bit more  severe than I thought they were going to be - but they are manageable if you keep it in the right place,” he said.

He plans to take on the par-fives this week too, explaining: “Certainly 15. It’s been on in two all week. The 13th is probably playing the hardest. You can get within range but we are driving through the fairway there.

“I can’t shape it enough to get around the corner and the rough is a bit sticky so it is hard enough to get there. Right to left is not natural for me. If I hit a good one straight it’s going into the rough.”

The Augusta wow factor really hit home for Dunbar as he played nine holes with US Open champion Webb Simpson and Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson on Monday.

“I was nervous teeing up with those guys and then the crowd all came up through the gates,” he said.  “But I also played 18 holes with Graeme (McDowell, on Tuesday) and was a great help, telling me about the greens and where you want to be.”

Dunbar has an invitation to tee it up at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament but whether he takes it up remains to be seen as he splits his time between the European Tour and the Challenge Tour for the first few months of his pro career.

His ambition this week is simply to “play well.”

“I played a wee game today on the back nine and I was one under without finishing up at the last,” he said on Tuesday evening. “There are birdies out there but you have to stay patient. It’s a major and pars are good. We will see what happens.”

As for his first event as a professional, he said: “I am not sure yet. We will sit down after this and sort it out.”

Alan Dunbar listens to some pointers from Graeme McDowell at the ninth. He’s likely to get several invitations to play on the main tour with Ireland, Sweden, Austria and the dual bagde Challegne Tour events such as Madeira and St Omer high on the agenda.

“It will be a bit of main tour and a bit of Challenge, see how he does on the main tour and if he doesn’t quite cut it, still has time to get one of top 20 cards on Challenge Tour,” Chandler said. “That’s the idea. The great thing he is that he knows that it is a long game.”