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Clarke returns to scene of famous victory

That day remains the pinnacle of Darren Clarke's career. It was on that day that the Northern Irishman defeated Tiger Woods by 4 and 3 in the 36-hole final of the Accenture World Match Play. There are not too many Sundays when Woods does not emerge victorious from a head-to-head battle and this was a famous moment for Clarke, as well as Irish and European golf.

There has never been any doubt about the talent possessed by the man from Dungannon, whose skills were honed on such great links as Royal Portrush. Was this the moment that Clarke would establish himself with the likes of Woods and David Duval, whom he defeated in the semi-finals, right at the top of the game?

From a list of former winners of the World Match Play -- the other three since the event began in 1999 are Jeff Maggert, Steve Stricker and Kevin Sutherland -- Clarke's name stands out as the most accomplished. In a tournament that has become synonymous with upsets, he remains the highest seed to win the event, and he was ranked 19th.

That his world ranking has now fallen to 27th suggests the 34-year-old has not trained on as he, or others, expected. It is a charge that Clarke does not attempt to deny.

"No, not all," he said. "I would like to think I would have had a chance of a major by now and that hasn't happened."

It is not as if success has eluded him. He has won at least once every season for the last five years. The way his manager, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, puts it to Clarke is whether he wants to be remembered as a regular European Tour winner, or as a major champion.

As proud as Brian Barnes remains of beating Jack Nicklaus twice in one day in the 1975 Ryder Cup, he probably came to wish it wasn't the only thing he was remembered for. Clarke appears to have decided that he would like to add to his Tiger-beating collection and to do so he cannot afford any more seasons like 2002. Last year he won the English Open for the third time but lacked consistency, his Order of Merit position of 22nd being his worse for eight years.

"It was a very frustrating year," he said. "There were a lot of things going on off the course which took a lot of organizing."

The health of his wife, Heather, was a concern. Then there was the upheaval of moving in to a new house in Chobham, just round the corner from Wentworth in Surrey.

The upheavals got worse when it came to sorting out the problems that came with the new house. "The underfloor heating packed up and a boiler went so there was no hot water over Christmas. All the floors have had to come up. We've moved in to a rented house 600 yards down the road for three months."

Time for a new beginning, then. "I have made a few changes," Clarke stated. One of the biggest is that Billy Foster is no longer going to be his caddie. He has engaged JP Fitzgerald, the man beside Paul McGinley at last year's Ryder Cup.

"It was a very hard decision," Clarke said. "We had been together for six years and we are good friends. But I thought I needed a change."

He has a new equipment deal, with Taylor Made, after two years of having no particular attachment and trying everything and anything that came along.

On the coaching front he has left Peter Cowen (again) and returned to Butch Harmon, his coach when he beat Harmon's better-known client, Woods, three years ago.

"I get on great with Pete but it was getting a bit technical," Clarke explained. "I need to get back to some simple swing thoughts. I have been down a couple of wrong tunnels recently. You think something needs working on but actually it probably only needs tweaking. We are all trying to get better."

Perhaps most importantly, Clarke had made a commitment to work with the American sports psychologist, Bob Rotella. Clarke had spoken to Rotella previously, but now feels it is time to get serious about the mental side of the game. Clarke might not warrant a full blown conference all to himself, but Rotella did write him a five-page handwritten letter over Christmas pointing out where he could improve.

Little of it was news to Clarke. "He wants to address a few things he thinks I do wrong. It's all about attitude, I'm not patient enough. You have to wait for things to happen, rather than force things and take myself out of a tournament. You've seen what Jos [Vantisphout] has done for Ernie Els. It's that little extra two percent and that's what I want to give myself."

Els has won five of his last six tournaments and is in a rare patch of form entering this week's Accenture at La Costa, where he will play in the same event as Woods for the first time this year.

"Ernie is a world-class player and is now showing us the level he can reach," Clarke said. "The way he is playing at the moment it is hard to imagine anyone playing much better, even Tiger. The competition between them this year is going to be very close."

It is a fascinating duel, not least because they have differing styles. "Tiger tends to overpower the golf course whereas Ernie seems to play quality golf shots all the time to shoot low. Having said that, Ernie seems to be hitting it farther with this new golf ball, but he is more of a get-it-round guy, while Tiger just rips it."

The test remains to play your best against Tiger's best, however. "It is like when Jack Nicklaus was up there. Everyone looked at the board and thought he's not going to make any mistakes. It is the same with Tiger. He does not make mistakes no matter how much pressure he is under. That in turn puts more pressure on the other players. They have to push it a little bit harder because he is not going to make any mistakes."

 

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