Northern Irishman is starting to rediscover the form which can make him an important member of Ryder Cup team.
Clarke sure to bounce back
Darren Clarke would prefer not to be having this weekend off from tournament golf, and I see no reason why this time next year he should not be back in the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship got under way last night. It is 10 years since Clarke won the Accenture title with a brilliant victory in the final over Tiger Woods.
While joint eighth place in last week's Avantha Masters in India will not convince even the Northern Irishman that he is close to recapturing his best form, he still has plenty more tournament wins in him and can be an important Ryder Cup player for Europe again in October. When he met Woods in the 2000 Accenture final, Clarke was up against a player largely thought to be unbeatable, and on his way to the "Tiger Slam" of four successive victories in the majors.
Clarke has always had a huge amount of talent and, as he proved with a 4&3 victory over Woods, is capable of beating anybody when firing on all cylinders. A decade on, Clarke has just crept back into the top 100 of the world rankings, and while he has a long way to go to win a place in Colin Montgomerie's European Ryder Cup team, he has started playing much better compared to last year when he had problems with his swing and his putting.
At the age of 41, it is going to be difficult for him to get all the way back to the top, especially with so many talented younger players around who shoot in the 60s as if it is the easiest thing in the world. He was unlucky to miss out by one spot on a place in the Dubai World Golf Championship last year, finishing 61st in the Race to Dubai which sent the top 60 into the climax to the European Tour.
Had he played in that event it could have made a big difference to his place in the world rankings, with the top 65 qualifying for the Accenture Match Play. For me, Clarke has it in him to become a big player again. It is not often you come across someone with his skill and ball-striking ability. While he had problems last year, he is now getting more width into his back swing, which is more on line and in front of his body, giving him room to move into the ball. He had been getting himself stuck in front of the club on the down swing, and while the swing can still improve it is a lot better.
The question is whether he can rediscover his putting touch. His putting position has improved over the past year or so, although he still has flaws with his action. He still struggles to get his hands, arms and shoulders to work together during the stroke, which means he loses consistency in the delivery of the putter face to the ball. The result is that some putts are pulled left while others are pushed right, and he does not feel the difference between the two.
There are times when he does get a good rhythm going and putts well, but he needs to find more consistency, as his finishes on Tour so far this year of 28th, second, 56th, 27th and eighth suggest. If he can do that, he may get his wish to join the Ryder Cup side at Celtic Manor, where there would be no more popular European player. No one would relish tackling the Americans more than Clarke, as he showed at the K Club in Ireland four years ago when contributed three points from three matches to Europe's victory.
For the time being he will be hoping one of his colleagues can follow in his footsteps at the Accenture and become the third European to triumph in the tournament, won by Henrik Stenson three years ago. Match play suits some players more than others. Generally, big hitters benefit as they have more choices when they need to make things happen. Being aggressive off the tee makes it easier to attack the pin and set up winning putts, while being 40 or 50 yards behind your opponent can be intimidating, and a lot of mental discipline is needed to prevent this from affecting your game.
On the other hand, a player who hits more fairways and greens will put pressure on his opponent regardless of whether he has a length advantage off the tee. Match play is a thinking golfer's game. A player who finds his opponent is not playing well can capitalise by concentrating on hitting fairways and aiming his approach shots at the middle of the green to avoid dropping shots, while giving himself a chance of birdies. Seeing his opponent find the sand off the tee, an intelligent golfer will select the best shot to take advantage, at the same time minimising risk.
The best match play golfers are those who love all these challenges and have the awareness and ability to adapt. Having said that, it is hard to beat someone who is on form and playing with freedom. There is no substitute for great golf. Former European and US Tour player Philip Parkin (www.philparkin.com) is a member of the TV golf commentary team for the BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US.