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Darren Clarke top draw at South African Open

European Ryder Cup star Darren Clarke returns to big-time golf this week in the South African Open at windswept Durban Country Club following an enforced two-month break from the game when his wife Heather was seriously ill.

"It was a tough time for the family but Heather's doing okay and hopefully we can now put all that behind us," said the 36-year-old Ulsterman Wednesday on the eve of the first European Tour event of the year, but the fourth of the 2005 season following the China Open, the Hong Kong Open and the Dunhill championship which were all held late in 2004.

"I'm actually hitting the ball pretty well and was a few under par in a practice round," said Clarke, ranked 14th in the world and the top international player here.

Clarke helped Europe famously topple the United States in last year's Ryder Cup and two of his teammates, Ireland's Paul McGinley and England's David Howell, are also teeing it up this week on one of Africa's premier golf courses fashioned out of dunes and lush coastal bush just a stone's throw from the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

Heading a fairly strong challenge from the continent of Europe are German pair Marcel Siem and Sven Struver, the French trio of Gregory Havret, Gregory Bourdy and Benoit Teilleira, and Swedes Joachim Backstrom, Mathias Gronberg, who won the South African Open in 2000, and Peter Gustafsson who topped the leaderboard at last year's European Tour qualifying school.

The defending champion is South Africa's Trevor Immelman who won last year's South African Open at Ernivale just outside Cape Town, as well as the 2003 edition of the tournament at the same venue.

"The wind's almost always blowing here and with the thick coastal bush lurking off the fairways you have to play pretty smart," said Immelman.

"It's not that long a course but the place tests your shotmaking skills to

the limit as you thread your way along the fairways."

Sadly for local fans, South Africa's top two golfers - world No 3 Ernie Els and world No 4 Retief Goosen - are not playing this week, preferring to concentrate on the US PGA Tour early in the season where there is bigger prize money on offer and more world ranking points.

However, 20-year-old compatriot Charl Schwartzel, who captured the Dunhill championship in December, will be trying for two wins in a row on the European Tour.


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