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Clarke's preparation pays dividends

Darren Clarke has not yet realised his full potential at the highest level, but his four-shot victory at the WGC-NEC Invitational on Sunday will go some way towards redressing the imbalance.

Before this weekend, the richly-talented Northern Irishman had clinched just nine European Tour wins since turning professional in 1990, the most recent in the 2002 English Open.

At the majors, he has collected only six top-10 finishes, including three at the British Open, but all too often he has been let down by his mental approach and by a putter that can cool down just as quickly as it heats up.

This year, though, Clarke has transformed his golfing mind-set with the help of American sports psychologist Bob Rotella. Hard work on other aspects of his game left him in ideal shape for last week's event in Akron, Ohio.

"It's the best I've ever prepared for a tournament," he said, after a closing 67 at the Firestone Country Club South Course earned him his second World Golf Championship title.

"Sometimes good things come out of bad things. I was disappointed missing the cut last week (in the U.S. PGA Championship at Oak Hill), but I was looking forward to coming here.

"I've been putting a lot of work in and getting very good results. But to win a tournament as important as this one, it certainly makes me feel pretty good after all the work I've done.

"It's great to see progress, not only in my swing and my short game, but from the mental side. Everything culminated."

The 35-year-old Clarke, always been highly regarded by his peers, has been one of Europe's most consistent performers over the last eight years.

But, as world number one Woods pointed out on Sunday, the Ulsterman has tended to vary between the brilliant and the rank ordinary.

"That's the way he plays," said Woods, who got to within two strokes of Clarke after eight holes in the final round before falling back into a tie for fourth.

"He's either playing great and winning tournaments or missing cuts. That's the way Darren is. When he gets on a roll...the better he plays, the faster he walks and gets after it."

Davis Love III, whose closing 69 lifted him into third place on Sunday, also rates Clarke highly.

"I think any time he gets near the lead, he plays very, very well," said Love. "When he's on his game, he's one of the best players out here.

"But sometimes he tries a little bit too hard, instead of letting it happen, he's trying to make it happen."

Clarke, who played without his trademark cigars at Firestone after leaving his holders at his England home, is aware of his tendency to push too hard. On Sunday, though, he felt entirely comfortable playing at a slower pace.

"I was really slow all day," he said. "I don't know how I managed to do it, but I was. I was just wandering around...just hitting it and finding it and hitting it again. I wish I could do it more often."

Armed this year with a new driver and ball, Clarke has become one of the biggest hitters in the game. But it was his inspired putting, more than anything else, that kept him on track for victory on Sunday.

His 100 putts for the four rounds ranked third for the week but he led the field in putts per green in regulation.

"I've tried to become a lot more stationery over the ball and not move as much," he said of his putting strategy.

"Some weeks you look down the greens manage to find the middle of the hole. Some weeks it works, some weeks it doesn't.

"To finish number one in putting is a major achievement for me."

Clarke's manager Andrew Chandler told Reuters this year that the Northern Irishman was ready to reach a higher level of consistency.

"He's a slow maturer, but there's been a huge difference in mental approach the last six months," Chandler said.

"We've always known how talented he is as a player and I think he will realise all his potential," he added of a man who who has twice fired rounds of 60 on the European Tour.

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