Byline: Graham Otway
FOR the past two years, there has been a common theme of Darren Clarke's comments to the media at the end of a round. 'I hit the ball beautifully, but couldn't putt,' the Dungannon man would say with monotonous regularity as he slipped down the world rankings and was reduced to vice captain at the ryder Cup in Wales.
But yesterday after signing off for a 67 to lie within one shot of the leaders at European Tour's new Volvo Golf Champions event in Bahrain, he finally changed his tune.
A putting lesson earlier in the week from Spanish short game wizard Jose Maria olazabal has yielded dividends. As he chases joint leaders Paul Casey and Peter Hanson today, Clarke believes he has a realistic chance of his first tour victory since the 2008 KLM open.
'I know that I have sounded like an old broken record saying the same thing so many times,' said Clarke after a bogey-free round on greens full of huge and tricky slopes.
'But this week my putting has definitely been an awful lot better. Even the putts that I have missed have been better. That sounds stupid but they have actually been better quality strikes.
'A lot of the putts that I have missed this week have been due to mis-reads not due to mis-strikes which is a very pleasant change for me.'
And Clarke was last night in possession of a new [euro]30,000 car as a result of winning a unique Saturday pro-am for which he and playing partner Casey teamed up with 3-handicap amateur Kevin Aherne, a Volvo customer from England.
Given the team format, Casey admitted that he was willing putts from his tournament rival Clarke into the hole - for a while, at least, yesterday.
'The pro-am took a lot of focus away from the actual championship,' said Casey who has not won anywhere in the world since 2009 and was controversially overlooked for a ryder Cup wild card by Colin Montgomerie.
'While you would never wish ill upon a rival, normally in a tournament you certainly don't want them to hole putts, but I was hoping Darren would sink every one of his for the team. …