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David Howell leads after opening 64

Darren Clarke carded a five-under-par 66 in the Irish Open first round on Thursday to maintain the good form that could land him a surprise spot in the European Ryder Cup team in October.

But his round still left him two strokes behind the leader, a reinvigorated David Howell.

Northern Irishman Clarke has been chosen as one of three non-playing vice-captains by Europe captain Colin Montgomerie but he could yet make the team for Celtic Manor.

“I will play if I qualify and I think Monty will want me to,” Clarke told reporters.

Leader Howell enjoyed a new lease of life. The successful 2004 and 2006 Ryder Cup player had the second-best round of his career following a slump that saw him plummet to 156th on Europe’s 2009 money-list.

The 35-year-old Englishman, blighted by injuries and bad form, chipped in for one of his five birdies and claimed an eagle on the 16th in a blemish-free round.

“I’ve been dying to get off to a good start,” Howell told reporters. “I’ve been working hard and persevering but it’s not been paying off.”

Australian left-hander Richard Green and Irishman Damien McGrane share second place after 65s.

Britain’s Robert Rock, who lost a playoff to Shane Lowry here when the Irishman was an amateur last year, posted a 65 but was later disqualified for signing for a wrong score.

Italian teenager Matteo Manassero ran up a two-shot penalty on the first for kicking sand in a bunker in a round of 72.

Briton Justin Rose’s hopes of qualifying automatically for the Ryder Cup team suffered a blow with a 74.



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