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Irish favourites for Wales Open

When the phone rang in Graeme McDowell's home on Monday night, the caller said: "Hello, this is Portrush's No2 player wanting to know how Portrush's No1 is getting on."

As the caller was Darren Clarke, winner of more than £7m on the European Tour and of 12 tournaments around the world, McDowell was duly flattered.

"Darren is a nice guy," said McDowell yesterday, as he prepared for the Wales Open, at the Celtic Manor resort, in Newport. "He's encouraged me all along and he helped me do the damage last week."

That was a reference to the putter that was instrumental in his Scandinavian Masters win in Stockholm. He single- putted seven times in the last nine holes to record his first win on the European tour at the fourth attempt.

It had formerly belonged to Clarke and was loaned to McDowell after he had failed to qualify for the Open Championship in July.

McDowell felt his putting let him down in Scotland but as soon as he laid hands on this Odyssey centre-shafted putter he knew it felt right. "I had a 66 the first time I used it in a tournament and I've told Darren he's not getting it back," he said.

Clarke, resigned to its loss, said: "I've asked him for a percentage of what he's won with it but it hasn't been forthcoming."

Both were brought up in Portrush, with Clarke a member of Dungannon, McDowell at Rathmore. When Clarke won for the first time he rang Dungannon and said that the drinks were on him. The members got through "a couple of thousand quid's worth," said Clarke. McDowell decided he would do the same but the Rathmore bill was only £700. "Must have been a quiet night," said McDowell.

Both players, along with Lee Westwood, the defending champion Paul McGinley, Ian Woosnam and Trevor Immelman, should be in contention for the £183,330 first prize from the £1.1m pool this week.

Next year it will rise to £1.5m and Sir Terence Matthews, the multi-millionaire course owner, pledged to make the event "one of the world's leading tournaments". For that, though, surely he would need a player like Tiger Woods?

"He'll be here," said Sir Matthews. "You can be certain of that."

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