SANDWICH, England — His work done for the day, Darren Clarke trudged into the media center to explain how a portly 42-year-old guy with gray hair was somehow able to escape the wilds of the British Open when a wave of youngsters half his age weren’t nearly as successful.
Before he could, though, Clarke was given a gentle reminder of his rightful place in golf’s new pecking order.
“The last person we expected to see in here was you,” a writer told him.
No worries, because a few days ago Clarke would have thought the same thing. His putting stunk, and he wasn’t exactly feeling good about his game heading into his 20th Open.
His younger countrymen were winning major championships, and Clarke was starting to get the feeling that maybe his time had passed.
Then a session with his shrink changed everything.
Forgetting for a moment that he’s not the Northern Irishman who is supposed to win this Open, Clarke matched his opening round 68 with the same score Friday to move to 4-under-par. It not only put him four shots up on fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, but gave him a share of the lead midway through the championship.
If golf is mostly mental, Clarke could even be considered a favorite going into the weekend. Yes, he’s won only twice in the last eight years, but he’s full of newfound confidence — which he will need if he is to win the first major title of his long career.
Still, a skeptical writer asked, does he really think he can win?
“Of course I do,” Clarke replied.
You’re not just saying that?
“No, of course I do.”
If Clarke does, maybe he should share the claret jug with Bob Rotella, a prominent sports psychologist who has made a career out of convincing golfers that they’re better than they think. Clarke had a session with Rotella on Wednesday, and just like that the putts began to drop.
Just what Rotella told him will remain between the guy in the chair and the one on the couch. Clarke joked that he pays him too much to share his secret to success.
Whatever it was, it worked. Clarke went out on a windless morning Friday and shook off a double bogey on the fourth hole to play 3-under the rest of the way and get in a tie with Lucas Glover at the top of the leaderboard.
Unexpected, sure. While McIlroy came in as the heavy betting favorite off his dominating win in the U.S. Open, Clarke was a 150-1 longshot known more lately for being more of a mentor to McIlroy and Graeme McDowell than a player who could contend in the British Open.
But impossible, no. Anyone who remembers Clarke in the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland shortly after the death of his wife, Heather, from breast cancer knows he has both the game and the will to compete and win. Clarke went 3-0 that week to lead Europe to an emotional victory that up until now was the highlight of his career.
“Nothing could be more difficult than that particular week,” Clarke said.
Though Clarke broke a three-year winless drought earlier this year on the European Tour by taking the Iberdrola Open in Spain, he has been eclipsed in recent years in Ireland by both McIlroy and McDowell, who have both won U.S. Opens. He’s close to both, withdrawing from a tournament in Germany last month at the last moment so he could be home to celebrate McIlroy’s Open win with him.
A win here by Clarke would give Ireland three of the last six major championships — all by different players.
“If Darren were to do it this weekend, I think we’d have an influx of golfers moving to Northern Ireland,” McDowell said.
McDowell will have to root for Clarke from afar after missing the cut following a fat 77 Friday. But there’s a chance Clarke could be battling McIlroy — who honed his game with support from Clarke’s junior golf foundation — down the stretch. McIlroy shot a 69 in the second round and was four shots off the pace.
The scoreboard is crowded, though, and could change quickly. Rain and wind are forecast to return to the English Coast over the weekend, and the tournament may just be won by the player who handles the elements best.
Clarke may have an advantage there. He recently moved his family from London back to Northern Ireland, where he practices and plays at Royal Portrush, a links course that shares many characteristics with Royal St. George’s. Another characteristic it shares is that the weather is often dreadful.
“It’s a case of getting used to playing in bad weather on links again, and that’s what I’ve been doing all over the winter,” Clarke said. “Hopefully it will stand me in good stead.”
The huge crowds that lined the fairways and crowded the grandstands Friday hope so, too. They cheered him along the way, delighted he was contending for the lead.
Maybe that’s because he’s a British subject and a Ryder Cup hero. Maybe they just identify with him because he’s a bit chunky and loves a fine cigar and a drink to go with it.
Or maybe they just like their players mentally fit.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http:///twitter.com/timdahlberg