- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 20, 2000

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland For the last three years, golf has been desperately seeking a foil for its phenom.

Neither David Duval nor Sergio Garcia could handle the label of Tiger Woods' top rival, but 6-foot-2, 225-pound Darren Clarke might just have the combination of grit and game to bear the mantle.

"Someone needs to stand in the gap, and maybe I can manage it," said Clarke yesterday. "Tiger's the best player in the world. Every time he tees it up, he has a chance to win. I am sure he wants to complete the Grand Slam this week, but there will be enough people trying to stop him. He doesn't win every week. He wins most weeks, but not every week. He is beatable."

Nobody knows that better than Clarke, who savaged Woods 4 and 3 earlier this year in the 36-hole final of the World Match Play Championship at La Costa (Carlsbad, Calif.). Only one other player has beaten Woods in a 36-hole match: Mark O'Meara (1-up) in the 1998 World Match Play final at Wentworth (England).

Asked yesterday if he was intimidated by Woods, a 9-5 favorite in this week's 129th British Open, Clarke literally laughed.

"Intimidated? Are you serious?" asked the 31-year-old Clarke. "He's a fantastic player. I respect his game immensely, but I'm not intimidated by anybody, much less that scrawny little rotter."

Clarke feels comfortable taking the occasional good-natured jab at Woods because the two are fast friends. Both share the same swing coach, Las Vegas-based Butch Harmon. And over the last three years, the two have played dozens of private matches after practice sessions with Harmon, even Woods admitting the tally stands practically dead even.

"DC has definitely jumped on me a fair number of times," Woods said Tuesday. "It's great, because we're constantly needling each other. And when he's on, he can go really low, so we've had some great matches."

Clarke has always had a knack for posting low numbers. Last year he shot 60 twice en route to claiming the English Open; thus the license plate on one of his two Ferraris: DC 60. But for years on the European Tour, Clarke had trouble putting together 72 consistent holes. Coming into this season, he had won just five times in Europe a suspect record for Europe's longest hitter and a player with one of the game's softest sets of hands.

"Darren always had an immense amount of talent, but I don't think he worked as hard as he could have in years past," said Scotland's Colin Montgomerie yesterday.

On top of that suspect practice regimen, Clarke also had a penchant for partying and an oft-overwhelming temper. Those traits conspired to ruin his first big break, when the greenskeeper's son from Dungannon, Northern Ireland, earned a golf scholarship to Wake Forest in 1991. Just a month into his brief stay in Winston-Salem, Clarke had a row with longtime Demon Deacons coach Jesse Haddock over what Clarke calls his "lifestyle choices." He quit the team without ever playing a match and returned to Europe to turn pro, staggering through one pedestrian season after another on the European Tour until Montgomerie took him aside in 1998 and implored him to make the most of his skills.

That visit prompted Clarke's manager, Chubby Chandler, to enlist the services of Harmon, who immediately compacted a swing he felt was too long for a man of Clarke's stature. Under Harmon's tutelage, Clarke has blossomed into Europe's top player, knocking Monty off his seven-year perch at the top of the European Order of Merit (Europe's money list). His powder keg temper is still legendary, but lately the only thing smoldering are his Cuban victory cigars.

Heading into the Open, Clarke bolstered his confidence by spending a week with Harmon at his home in Sunningdale, England. Not that he needed much assurance about his ability to play the Old Course. No player in the field can match Clarke's record in the Alfred Dunhill Cup, a team match play event held each year at St. Andrews in which Clarke boasts a 9-1 match play mark for Ireland. And unlike most members of the field who have spent the week gushing about Woods' skills and bemoaning their own chances, Clarke seems steeled to tangle with Tiger.

"I've got a pretty good chance this week," Clarke said. "I'm hitting the ball well, and I have started knocking in some putts. If I can keep knocking those in, it'll hopefully give me a good chance.

Clarke had an excellent chance to claim the claret jug at Troon in 1997. Tied for the final-round lead with Sweden's Jesper Parnevik, Clarke shanked a ball out of bounds midway through the front nine and wound up finishing three strokes back of eventual champion Justin Leonard.

"I wasn't mature enough to win then, but I'm a different player now," Clarke said. "My swing is sturdier under pressure… . Sooner or later, I'm going to win one of these things because I know I'm a damned good player. If I put it all together, I don't think Tiger or anyone else can beat me."

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