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A Matchplay Standard

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the 10th anniversary of a memorable triumph for Darren Clarke

Posted Feb 18, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

darren clarke

He's not here in Tucson this week, but Darren Clarke's spirit is very much a part of the Accenture World Matchplay Championship in this, the 10th anniversary of his memorable triumph in the event at La Costa. Though the championship's extensive statistics don't include it, the fact is that Clarke gained two remarkable distinctions on that occasion:  he beat a Ryder Cup player in all six rounds and he positively trounced no less a figure than Tiger Woods in the 36-hole final. 

Though others have beaten Woods in this event, Clarke is the only one to have done so over 36 holes, which is the ultimate test of man-to-man combat.  And he was approximately 11 under par before the match ended 4 and 3 in his favour, on the 33rd.

Here is a breakdown of Clarke's figures for that week, which highlight the importance of simply playing better than your opponent when you happen to have an off-day, as he did against Paul Azinger in the opening round.  And it was a time when another of his victims, David Duval, was the number two in the world.  The Irishman's statistics for the week were:

Match Holes Won Lost Birdies, Eagles, Bogeys, To par
v Paul Azinger 17 5 3 2 0 4 +2
v Mark O’Meara 14 5 0 4 0 0 -4
v Thomas Bjorn 18 6 5 4 1 3 -3
v Hal Sutton 18 4 3 4 0 2 -2
v David Duval 16 6 2 6 0 1 -5
v Tiger Woods 33 9 5 12 0 1 -11
Totals 116 35 18 32 1 11 -23

In stark contrast to the sunny seventies we're enjoying here at Dove Mountain, European weather of the wet, February variety provided a familiar backdrop to the opening round in 2000 when Clarke overcame Azinger in their first-ever meeting.  Then came a crushing 5 and 4 win in the second round over another major winner, O’Meara, in what Clarke described as "a very professional performance".

By Friday and a third-round win over Bjorn, Clarke's progress was beginning to arouse local interest, though we had yet to reach the point of serious predictions.  These came the following morning when, from a position of three down, he recovered brilliantly to beat Sutton on the 18th in the quarter-finals.  After a semi-final win over Duval that afternoon, Clarke felt comfortable enough about his game to indulge in some self-mocking about failed attempts at trimming down his considerable girth. "All the hard work I’ve done in the gym during the winter is standing me in good stead," he declared with a big grin and heavy irony.

An unshakeable belief in the quality of his own ball-striking left him far from overawed by the final clash with Woods on the Sunday. Indeed, reputations always counted for very little with him. His respect for opponents was based essentially on how they hit the golf ball. Either way, he had guaranteed himself an Irish record haul of $300,000 in prize money by lunchtime on Saturday and, at the end of the day, the figure had gone up to $500,000 – a record by any player in an official European Tour event. In his own words, it had been achieved by "hitting greens and knocking in a few putts".

It made quite a change from the previous Sunday when Clarke's manager, Chubby Chandler, gratefully accepted four handicap strokes on each nine and covered 16 holes at La Costa in two-under-par to take $165 from his charge. It proved to be arguably the player's best investment since turning professional.

In the event, Clarke delivered golf of astonishing control and quality in the final, for a surprisingly comfortable win over the world's number one.  By doing so, he nudged the game’s elite in Ireland, Britain and the world, to make way for a new arrival. After being hit with 12 birdies in the 33 holes played, Woods graciously conceded: "To be honest, Darren just flat outplayed me. I think he missed only one fairway, while I just couldn’t quite hit the shots the way I wanted to. I just wasn’t able to put pressure on him."

It was a million-dollar performance which gave Clarke a special place among practitioners from these islands. And it set a Matchplay standard to which this week's participants could very profitably aspire.

- Dermot Gilleece

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