A late flurry of birdies left Darren Clarke six shots off the lead after the opening round of the Dominion Energy Charity Classic on the PGA Tour Champions in Richmond, Virginia.
The 53-year-old opened his tournament with a three-under 69 at the Country Club of Virginia to trail overnight leader Steven Alker, who was on top form in carding a nine-under 63 in his first round to lead by just one shot from Steve Flesch. Clarke, who is aiming to move up the Charles Schwab Cup standings ahead of the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship in three weeks’ time, is tied-17th after Thursday’s play and projected to remain ninth in the Order of Merit.
It could have been worse for the former Open champion, however, as he needed a run of three birdies in his final four holes to rescue what had been a fairly pedestrian round up to that point. Having birdied the sixth and ninth on his front nine, Clarke looked to be on for one of his more forgettable rounds on the senior circuit when he double-bogeyed the 10th and then parred his next four holes in a row.
But the Dungannon man produced a reminder of his class at this level as he strung together back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16 before ending his round by gaining a shot at the 18th to ensure he’d be signing for a round in the 60s, a 69. That has him six back of Alker, the New Zealander bogey-free on the day and able to rack up nine birdies in a round of 63 that has him one clear of namesake Flesch after one round.
Alker is making his PGA Tour Champions debut in Virginia this week after four consecutive seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour and the Hamilton native conceded that his game perhaps suits the senior circuit more than it does the main Tours nowadays. “It’s a new chapter for me coming from Korn Ferry and playing with those young guys; big, strong, hitting it forever. So in places I was competitive out there, but I’m kind of maybe a little more competitive out here,” he admitted.
“But, as I said, my game’s just coming around at the right time. You’ve still got to play golf and shoot the scores. These guys, they’re good so you’ve got to shoot some good scores. “It’s just a combination of game coming together and just really wanting to play out here.”
Flesch was also bogey-free, recording just one less birdie in his opening round of 64 to sit eight-under, while another Stephen, this time Ames from Canada, in a tie for third after a six-under 66 that featured an eagle, six birdies and two bogeys.
Charles Schwab Cup leader Bernhard Langer, along with Americans Bob Estes, Doug Barron and Matt Gogel, is at six-under alongside Ames, with Shane Bertsch, Tim Petrovic a shot further back at five-under. Clarke will be keen to move up the season money list before the Tour heads to Phoenix, Arizona for the final event of the year and, if he can find a good result this week, he will be confident of another big finish at the TimberTech Championship in two weeks’ time where he is the defending champion.
Of the other players in the top-10 in the Charles Schwab Cup race outside of Clarke and Langer, 10th-placed Alex Cejka was the best on day one after a four-under 68, with Jim Furyk and Retief Goosen, second and seventh respectively, alongside Clarke after a 69, and fifth-placed Ernie Els a shot further back.
Further down the leaderboard, eight-placed Mike Weir and fourth-placed Miguel Angel Jiménez both struggled to a 73 and 74 respectively.