Only a few weeks after talking about giving up golf for a while because things were going so badly, Darren Clarke bounced back into the spotlight on Thursday.
Clarke, spurred on by fellow Northern Irishmen Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, leads the Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond after a 6-under-par 65. And there is an added incentive for the 40-year-old. This is his last chance to grab a place in the British Open next week.
"I've been on Tour for a long time," he said when asked about the one St. Andrews spot on offer. "This is the first round and there's an awful long way to go, but of course I would love to qualify."
The Ryder Cup hero will return Friday morning a stroke ahead of England's Graeme Storm, Ireland's Damien McGrane and Italian Edoardo Molinari.
McDowell, returning to European Tour life three weeks after his U.S. Open triumph, trails by six after what he described as a "mixed bag," and Masters champion Phil Mickelson is on the same level-par mark as he began his bid for the top-2 finish that would take him to world No. 1 spot for the first time.
Clarke didn’t drop a shot all day, collecting four birdies in six holes from the third, making further birdies at the 13th and 14th and then saving par from a greenside bunker on the last during a torrential downpour.
"It was pretty tough,” he said. “The wind was swirling, it got very wet for the last couple of holes."
The round didn’t come totally out of blue. He was a runner-up in South Africa in January, was sixth in Portugal last month and on Tuesday won the unofficial but star-studded J.P. McManus Invitatoinal Pro-Am featuring Tiger Woods at Adare Manor in west Ireland.
As for his recent "I feel like quitting" comments, Clarke said: "Yeah, the red stool in the Harbour Bar in Portrush was looking very good for a long time. But I was just frustrated. Sometimes I make the game as difficult as I possibly can for myself."
Four years ago, of course, Clarke was the focus of emotional scenes at The K Club near Dublin when he helped Europe beat the Americans in the Ryder Cup just a few weeks after his wife Heather lost her breast cancer battle. He says he now has a "wonderful" girlfriend and adds: "Everything off the course, I can't really ask for more.
"I'm just moving on with my life in a direction I can't wait to keep going,” he explained. “I've made a decision to move back home to Portrush and I'm doing that this summer."
McDowell warned people not to expect great things from him after so much celebrating, but closing with two birdies means a third successive win -- he lifted the Wales Open before heading to Pebble Beach -- cannot be ruled out yet.
"There were a few good swings in there and a few champagne swings as well," he said.
The best example of the latter was an 8-iron to the 190-yard fifth that came up 50 yards short only just over the hazard.
Mickelson was 1 under after 13, but double bogeyed the next -- and it could have been far worse. He was seconds away from having to go back to the tee after a search for his second shot.
"It was a pretty boring round to be honest. I wasn't very sharp,” said Mickelson. "I do expect to improve as the week goes on."
Korea's Y.E. Yang, the third current major champion in the tournament, returned a 72, but 18-year-old Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa shot 67 and is in a group tied for fifth that also includes 1995 Open champion John Daly.
For a while World Cup-winning brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari were tied at the top, but Francesco bogeyed the last two for a 68.
Ryder Cup Captain Colin Montgomerie managed just a 74, while 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell took a 10 on the long sixth in his 80. It included a two-shot penalty because, without realizing it until the green, he went to a different type of ball after losing his drive.