Rejuvenated Clarke defends at penultimate TimberTech Championship

Adam McKendry
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Darren Clarke (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

His hopes of winning the Charles Schwab Cup are all but over, but Darren Clarke will surely hope that returning to a venue that will only evoke positive memories for him can propel him into next season when he tees it up at the TimberTech Championship in Boca Raton, Florida.

The defending champion from a year ago, Clarke produced a fine finish at the Old Course at Broken Sound in the 2020 event, birdieing his final hole to win by one stroke from Jim Furyk and Bernhard Langer to claim his first PGA Tour Champions title.

That would lead to a run of impressive finishes on the seniors circuit, former Open champion Clarke winning in Hawaii three months later before adding the Sanford International in September of this year for good measure.

But the chance to sit back and reflect on past glories is not what Clarke is in Florida for. While last year the 53-year-old came into the tournament as a still unproven member of the PGA Tour Champions, this year he arrives in Boca Raton as one of its leading lights.

So the pressure is somewhat different as this time he comes in with an air of expectation around him, both externally and internally.

The latter comes from a desire to pull himself up the order of merit standings to at least gain a bit more personal pride. Despite three wins in this extended season – due to the Covid-19 pandemic the 2020 and 2021 seasons have been combined into one – Clarke enters the penultimate event in 10th, 1,584,206 points behind leader Langer with only a maximum of 1,490,000 remaining to be won.

Indeed, Clarke has more wins this season than Langer – the German only has two victories to his name in 2020/21 – but the difference lies in consistency. While Langer has 24 top-10s, Clarke has just eight, thus explaining the disparity in the standings.

With Clarke intending on being competitive on Tour moving forward, he needs to learn how to be involved at the business end of tournaments on a more frequent basis. As he proved this time last year, he has winning on Tour mastered, but managing to turn his ‘off weeks’ into weeks where he is still semi-competitive will help considerably.

So, could Broken Sound be the exact kind of place he could use as a springboard if not for this season but for next?

It’s a course he obviously is comfortable around. Not only did he win here last year, he also produced eight birdies and an eagle in his second round, and 19 birdies in 54 holes in all. He’s also familiar with the area as son Tyrone went to nearby Lynn University.

His title defence won’t be straightforward as a full strength field will be in Boca Raton, most notably Langer, who could wrap up the Charles Schwab Cup with an event to spare if he could win at a course where he finished second to Clarke a year ago.

Furyk, ranked No.2 in the order of merit and also runner-up at last year’s event, will be keen to have a say, too, and at least take the race for the season prize to the final week of the season, while Steve Flesch is another who seems to be trending towards a victory after a string of near misses.

But this could be the week where Clarke finds that extra gear again at a course that clearly suits his game and where he will relish returning and getting the chance to be the centre of attention. It may be too late to make a significant mark this season, but it could just be that boost he needs looking to 2022.

The former European Ryder Cup captain starts his title defence alongside Alex Cejka and Flesch at 12:29pm Irish time.

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