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Darren Clarke hopeful of more South African success

He is ranked a lowly 229th in the world, he missed no fewer than 12 cuts during 2007 and - no longer a youngster - he turns 40 this year.

Yet, odd as it may seem, this veteran Northern Ireland golfer could just be the man to beat in the R11.1-million Johannesburg Open beginning at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington on Thursday.

The fellow in question, in case you hadn't guessed, is Darren Clarke - and No 229 in the rankings simply doesn't fit. So you can bet your bottom dollar it's only a matter of time before he'll be back in the top 100 in the rankings, then the top 50. Who knows after that? Perhaps the top 10. He's that talented.

Of course, Clarke's story is well-known... How this world-class golfer lost his wife, Heather, to cancer in August 2006 after he'd lovingly nursed her during her brave fight with the disease.

Three weeks later, almost as a tribute to Heather, he informed Ryder Cup captain Ian Woosnam he was available for selection and was picked for the match against the US at the K Club. A tearful Clarke won all three of his matches in that emotionally charged week, emerging as one of the heroes for the victorious Europeans.

Then the despair of personal loss set in, his game went sour as a result and he plummeted down the rankings. To be honest, it was only on his pre-Christmas visit to South Africa to play in the Alfred Dunhill at Leopard Creek in December (he finished 33rd) and the South African Airways Open at Pearl Valley (where he tied for third) that things really started to look up for him again.

"They say a leopard can't change its spots, but I certainly changed my form at Leopard Creek," he said after that event.

"All the practice and hard work is beginning to pay off. My tee-to-green play was the best it's been in three years, which was reflected by me leading the greens in regulation stats.

"Sadly, the same could not be said about my putting where I was nestling near the bottom. That prevented me from being placed higher up the leader board.

"But," he added later after Pearl Valley, "South Africa has been my very own Winter Wonderland in the sun - I've had a fantastic, very worthwhile two weeks of golf here. I hit some great shots in difficult weather to tie for third, even though my putting again let me down."

Now it's on to the Joburg Open and a resurgent Clarke could well be among the leaders.

This European Tour event is played over both the East and West courses, allowing for an expanded field of 204 professionals - among them SA Open champion James Kingston, and three young South Africans who won in Europe last year: Charl Schwartzel, Anton Haig and Richard Sterne.

January 8, 2008


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