- Associated Press - Friday, July 9, 2010

LUSS, SCOTLAND (AP) - Darren Clarke was nearly flawless in miserable conditions Friday in the Scottish Open, opening a four-shot lead as he looks to add to what already has been a banner year for golf in Northern Ireland.

On a dreary day at Loch Lomond, Clarke chipped in for birdie on the tough 16th and holed a series of 20-foot birdie putts on the front nine for a 4-under 67.

Perhaps more impressive than being at 10-under 132 going into the weekend is that Clarke has made only one bogey _ a three-putt from 20 feet on the par-3 11th hole on Friday _ over his opening 36 holes. He has played cleanly in conditions that caused Phil Mickelson to take a quintuple-bogey on the 18th hole, and Ernie Els to make consecutive double bogeys as he was trying to finish.

“It wasn’t torrential, heavy rain. It was just torrential rain,” Clarke said. “If you’re from Ireland, there’s a difference. We knew it was going to be very hard and the forecast was poor. It was just tough to play in it. Par was a good score on every hole. So being able to shoot 4-under, I was very pleased.”

Among the early finishers, Clarke was four shots clear of Bradley Dredge and Peter Hedblom, who each at a 69. Francesco Molinari had a double bogey on the opening hole and rallied for a 69 to finish on 5-under 137.

John Daly made bogey on his opening hole despite having to go back to the tee after losing his opening shot, then struggled home over the closing holes and shot 73. He was eight shots behind.

Along with trying to win for the first time in two years, Clarke can earn a spot in the British Open next week at St. Andrews by winning, or at least finishing the highest among those who are not eligible.

Once the high-profile player from Northern Ireland, he has turned the feats over to his proteges. First came Rory McIlroy, closing with a 62 at Quail Hollow for his first victory in America in May. A month later, Graeme McDowell gave Northern Ireland its first major since 1947 when he captured the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

“I’ve been delighted to see their success,” Clark said. “It’s fantastic for European golf and Ulster golf, Irish golf, to see the two of them playing as well as they have been. I’ve been there a little bit for both of them in the past, and they are returning the compliment to me at the moment to keep going and working away at it.”

His game started to turn earlier in the week when he won the J.P. McManus charity event in Ireland. It didn’t count on his record, although it mattered to see so many putts go in, and the confidence appears to have carried forward.

Clarke has been around long enough to know that one round _ especially Thursday _ doesn’t mean much. That’s one reason he took as much satisfaction out of his 67 on Friday. Now he has reason to believe he can win at Loch Lomond, and that his game is turning around.

He built his big lead quickly, making a 15-foot birdie from the fringe on No. 1 after a 4-iron, an example of how much longer the course played in wet conditions. Clarke played short of the par-5 third and holed a 20-foot birdie putt, then knocked in a 25-foot birdie on the fourth after hitting into the rough.

Mickelson was resigned to missing the cut when he signed his card, although his chances improved as the weather worsened. Els, too, figured he was done when he shot on his back nine for a 76, leaving him in a group with Mickelson at 3-over 145.

“Just fighting my swing all day and I basically got fed up with it,” Els said of the shot he hooked into the weeds on No. 6 and the approach he blocked in the lake on the next hole. “It’s probably better for me to get out of here, get to St. Andrews and work on it.”

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