Big Fish, Small Pond At the NEC, Darren Clarke solidified his standing as top Euro

August 31, 2003

At least one race is tighter than the PGA Tour player of the year
contest, and no, we're not talking about the National League MVP.
Consider this: Who is the best European golfer right now? The
wise-guy answer five minutes ago was, Nobody. After last week's
NEC Invitational we offer an old answer that's new again: Darren
Clarke of Northern Ireland.

Clarke is best known in the States for hauling his famously
chubby gut around the final of the 2000 Match Play Championship
in 11 under par, dusting Tiger Woods with a display of precision
shotmaking. Clarke is best known in Europe for squandering his
enormous talent in favor of fine wine, expensive cigars and
Ferraris. He's had a nice-enough career, with eight victories in
Europe and now two in the U.S., but he has never won a major, and
he has never led the Order of Merit, finishing second in 1998 and
2000. He is now 13th in the World Ranking.

That Clarke, with his good-but-not-great credentials, is suddenly
the king of European golf speaks volumes about the struggles over
there, a situation that has been largely obscured by a gutty
Ryder Cup win last year. Padraig Harrington (ninth) is the only
European in the top 10 in the world, but Paddy has trouble
squeezing out victories--he's never won an official event in the
U.S.--and seems to have peaked just short of being a serious
contender in the majors. Here's a scarier stat: Only five
Europeans are among the world's top 30. Who are the other
challengers to Clarke's tenuous title of Best Euro? Sergio Garcia
(17th) has been the heir apparent for years but has stalled while
he revamps his quirky swing. Thomas Bjorn (19th) is personally
responsible for making Ben Curtis a British Open champion. The
king of the '90s, Colin Montgomerie (27th), always seems to trip
(sometimes literally) in the majors. The Europeans have a litter
of promising young pups such as Paul Casey, Luke Donald and
Justin Rose, but they're still not quite ready for prime time.

So for now it's all on Clarke, who on Sunday at Firestone Country
Club in Akron pulled away from a host of final-round pursuers
that included, once again, Woods. Clarke began the final round
with a one-shot lead over Jonathan Kaye and a three-stroke
advantage over Woods, but he went out in 32 and added another
birdie at the 11th hole, pushing his lead to an imposing five
strokes. He finished at 12 under par and won by four. "He's
stout, and he played stout," said U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk, who
tied for sixth. A year of hard work and focusing on his putting,
always the weakest part of his game, finally paid off for Clarke
and could be a sign that, at 35, he's on the verge of realizing
his vast potential in the manner of his American counterpart,
Davis Love III, who is enjoying his best season at 39. "Sometimes
I can play this game pretty well, and today was one of those
days," Clarke said during the award ceremony, after sneaking a
quick postround cigarette behind the scoring trailer. "I wish I
could repeat it a little more often."

Perhaps he will. The NEC counts toward the European money list,
and Clarke is now second behind Ernie Els. Clarke will be hard to
hold off if he putts like this on a regular basis. Always a solid
ball striker, he led the field in putts per green hit in
regulation on Firestone's devilishly fast greens. "That is a
major achievement for me," he said.

It's nearly as big as winning a second World Golf Championship
title. (Clarke is the only player--other than Woods, who has
seven--to win more than one.) And it means Clarke is now,
officially, smokin'. "I didn't smoke much today," Clarke said on
Sunday with an impish grin, "but I'll make up for it later."
--Gary Van Sickle

COLOR PHOTO: AP PHOTO/TONY DEJAK (CLARKE) NEC INVITATIONAL Darren Clarke Salvages His Season At Firestone G6 COLOR PHOTO: MARK DUNCAN/AP (CLARKE) A NEW WRINKLE Clarke dusted a strong field with a hot putter. COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (RHODEN AS PIRATE) COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT AND LINDA MOSTYN/EYE UBIQUITOUS/CORBIS (SPAGHETTI) COLOR PHOTO: GARY TRAMONTINA/AP (WAGNER) Jack Wagner COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD DREW/AP (RODRIGUEZ) COLOR PHOTO: CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP (RHODEN)

TRUST ME

In a year of surprise winners, U.S. Amateur champ Nick Flanagan
is the most charming. The son of a coal miner, Flanagan dusted
hardened products of the junior golf factory with grit and
flair.

THE NEW MATH
Rich Rhoden finishes fifth at the Allianz Championship

(BASEBALL CAREER x DEAD ARM) - CELEBRITY TOUR + CHAMPIONS TOUR =
[Rich Rhoden]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)