I Fear For Darren

Darren Clarke, that is. Clarke is the affable Northern Irishman who leads this year’s British Open at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, by one stroke after 54 holes.

What he accomplished Saturday was nothing short of spectacular. In howling winds and driving rain, he managed to shoot a 1-under 69. ESPN golf analyst (and two-time U.S. Open winner), Andy North, said that it was the finest ball striking round he had ever seen in those circumstances, those conditions. He missed just two greens all day long and the ones he did miss were just short and close enough that he could putt.

But why I fear for him are two flashes of fear I saw in two shots that he hit early in the round. One was the approach shot on 2 and the other was his tee shot on the par 3 3rd. In both instances, as the shot unfolded in the sky, Clarke’s eyes grew wide with hope and then flashed with fear when he thought it might not work out.

They say that the eyes are the gateway to the soul. It’s one of the reason that all these big-stakes poker players wear sun glasses in the middle of the night with baseball caps pulled down over their eyes for good measure. Only sociopaths can mask what’s really going on in there.

So what were these flashes about? Well, he wants this one very much. He has won over 20 tournaments, he’s won the WGC Match Play Championship and he’s starred in numerous Ryder Cup matches. But he’s never won a major. And now here he is on the precipice of the one he would most like to win. And it’s the one all of the rest of us would most like to see him win.

Why? Because he is such a good guy. He has that big, cheek-to-cheek smile and twinkling eyes that light up an entire grandstand. He has stoically endured the death from breast cancer of his beloved wife, Heather, and taken on raising their two little boys. He has left his world headquarters in London behind for a return to his Northern Ireland roots; better for the kids’ education and better for him. And, bless his heart, he’s gotten engaged to a lovely, former Miss Northern Ireland, Alison Campbell. And she hails from the same part of Northern Ireland that he does. So all is in order everywhere in his life save for this one last thing.

Wanting it so badly can be a great motivation for anyone. But it has to be a great motivation to stay engrossed in the process of staying in the present, not trying harder as if harangued by the great American football coach, Vince Lombardi. You can’t do anything if you are bound up by effort, but you can do everything if your determination keeps you focused and in the moment.

And, rather than fear, perhaps that’s what I saw in those two glimpses of his eyes, wanting it too much; there’s a micron’s difference between the two. To his credit, once he was settled and convinced himself that he was playing very well, I never saw that look again. So hopefully he’s moved beyond it and I am wrong about all of this.

That being said, he could be three or four shots clear had he putted better. He had three short putts for birdie that he missed and another understandably longer one. And I wonder if he’s putting more by formula than by feel. He has thoroughly acknowledged the help he received with his putting this week from Dr. Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist. The broadcast explained that one of Rotella’s big things is that he wants the putting stroke to be reactive. So as your eyes come back to the ball from your last look at the hole, when they arrive at the ball, that’s your trigger to begin the stroke. No thinking about it.

My concern about this is that it risks being too formulaic…so that in dealing with any particular putt, you’ve trained yourself to be responsive to the formula, the trigger, rather than what you see on the ground in front of you, rather than what you feel in your hands.

The need for that sort of formula comes from a lack of feel in the first place. It you can feel all the nuances in your stroke and you can see the line, you putt when the feel and the look congeals in your mind. Feeling all the nuances is the purpose of all of those putting reps.

For example, I know from my play that my flaw is that I take the putter head back slightly closed sometimes rather than just letting it flow away from the ball…which causes me to push the ball when I try to square it on the way forward. So the purpose of my practice putting reps is to feel the flow away from the ball so that that’s my expected, normative stroke and I’m not manipulating the putter face. When I am playing with an appropriate level of reps under my belt, I don’t think of the flaw, I feel the flow. Using a trigger to mask an under-trained stroke runs the risk of engendering fear of what the stroke is going to do.

And given the fearless young Turks snapping at Clarke’s heels, Sunday would not be a good day to be playing with fear. The two most threatening ones are Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Johnson is one stroke back and will play with Clarke in the final round. He is a tall, physical presence who absolutely kills the ball. And with all of his tournament experience, you rarely see a change in his facial expression. He shot one of the two 68s, the low rounds of the day. And Rickie Fowler shot the other one and is three shots back.

I made the mistake of overlooking Fowler in yesterday’s post. I thought of him as young and not quite ready on this big a stage. While I extolled Clarke’s links-land experience in big winds and rain, I completely forgot about Fowler’s experience playing in the howling winds at Oklahoma State (and his stellar Ryder Cup performance). He was absolutely masterful in his shotmaking Saturday and, emboldened by that, who knows what he could do on Sunday. His facial expression doesn’t change either.

Fowler will be playing with Thomas Bjorn who shot just 1-over Saturday, so he has all the skills. But he seems to be playing on eggshells and doing well in spite of himself. He lost the 2003 Open on this very course when he blew his lead by taking three shots to get out of the greenside bunker on 16. He seems to be on the cusp now of recovering from that, but you can still sense the caution in his way of being.

If Clarke gets to one or two under in his round, these are the only players who are close enough and have the firepower to catch him. If he backs up, he brings more trouble into the equation: Lucas Glover, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Martin Kaymer. Uh Oh! And with big winds and rain expected again Sunday…

But as I said, I hope Clarke’s eyes will be clear all the day long.

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