Clarke surprises with sizzling 63

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:25 AM ET

ORLANDO -- Darren Clarke, the pride of Northern Ireland, looked sheepish. Almost embarrassed.

Moments after putting the finishing touches on a masterful round of 63 to leap into contention at the Bay Hill Invitational, Clarke, one of the PGA Tour's bon vivants, was asked how he celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

"By remaining ridiculously sober, which goes against all my principles," he said. "But I thought for the tournament I'd better stay sober, so I did."

A scribe suggested, "We are ashamed of you," and Clarke agreed.

"I know, so am I. Pretend I had a few."

Good call, at least the pretend part. Clear-headed, Clarke rattled off nine birdies, including six in a row, to put up his best round in recent memory, moving from one under par to 10 under heading into the final round today.

Golf has not been Clarke's priority the past couple of years. His wife, Heather, first diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2001, has had a relapse that began about a year ago.

Understandably, Clarke has been preoccupied with matters far more urgent than birdies and pars.

"She's doing okay," he said. "She's having a pretty tough battle at the minute. She had a couple of weeks of very intense treatment last month, so she's had a tough time but she's battling hard."

Clarke began the day tied for 37th and ended it tied for second with Greg Owen and Lucas Glover, four shots behind leader Rod Pampling. Jason Bohn is next in line at nine under.

Canadian Mike Weir rallied from a front nine that included three bogeys to finish the day with a score of 71 and sits at five under for the tournament.

DUMB PLAY

"I didn't play that poorly on the front, just made a dumb play on the (par-5) sixth. Tried to go for the green and it was a low-percentage shot. I should have laid it up."

On the back nine, Weir made four birdies and shot 32 to keep himself in the game heading into the final round.

"I think I'm even par on the par-5s this week. If I'd played even half-decent on the 5s, I'd be at 10 under."

Tiger Woods wasn't able to get things going yesterday, finishing with a round of 71 and stands at four under for the tournament.

Clarke has played just two other PGA events this season, losing in the first round of the Accenture Match Play and then bowing out with a sore wrist after shooting 75 in the opening round at Doral.

"As you can see by my results (his wife's condition) is affecting me quite a bit, which is normal. The golf is no where near the top of my priorities.

"At the same time, I'm not just going out to make up a number. I want to try to compete.

"I just had one of those days where everything clicked. It's a nice feeling to shoot a good score on such a tough course."

So uncertain is Clarke's schedule that there is a strong chance he will not be able to make the European Ryder Cup team this year. It will be an especially cruel blow to Clarke since it's being held in Ireland.

"It's the biggest sporting event they've ever had in Ireland," Clarke said. "Of course I want to be part of it. But I don't know if I'm going to play next week. I don't know if I'm going to play the week after. That's just too far ahead for me to know what's going on.

"You don't want to be there if you're not at the top of your game. If I was close to making the team that would be a different scenario. But if I was far off from making the team, then the last place I would want to be is on the first tee under all that pressure, uncertain where it's going. I'd rather have a few pints of Guinness and watch it on TV."

But that's all just conversation. Clarke's world is very small just now, and his wife is at the centre of it.


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