Clarke on his game, unstoppable at Firestone


AKRON, Ohio (AP) - Darren Clarke is good enough to win two World Golf Championships, both times beating back a challenge from Tiger Woods with ease.

Then again, he has never won a major and only contended in a couple of them. Despite 14 victories worldwide, some question whether he has squeezed the most out of his talent.

"He's either playing great and winning tournaments or missing cuts," Woods said. "When he gets on a roll ... you saw it out there."

No one saw Clarke (pictured, above) for very long.

A one-stroke lead Sunday in the NEC Invitational turned into four shots when Clarke rolled in a 15-foot eagle putt on the second hole. And when Woods tried to apply pressure with back-to-back birdies, Clarke responded with three birdies in five holes.

The result was a four-shot victory for Clarke, allowing the 35-year-old from Northern Ireland to join Woods as the only multiple winners of the WGC series.

Clarke also beat the world's No. 1 player, 4 and 3, in the 2000 Match Play Championship.

"I don't know which was more tougher," Clarke said after closing with a 3-under 67 to finish four ahead of Jonathan Kaye. "Match Play was head-to-head against the best players in the world, so that's never going to be an easy game. That day, I played as well as I could and Tiger didn't. Today, I was competing against more guys, as well as Tiger."

Not really.

After dispatching of Woods, his only serious challenger, Clarke was only competing against himself.

He finished at 12-under 268 and earned $1.05 million for his first victory of the year, moving him into second place behind Ernie Els in the European tour money list.

He also became the first European player to win on the PGA Tour this year.

"Any time he gets near the lead, he plays very well," said Davis Love III, who closed with a 69 and finished third. "When he's on his game, he's one of the best players out there."

Only three other players scored better than Clarke's 67, and they all finished before he could digest his lunch.

"Darren just played perfect," said Kaye, who started the final round one stroke behind and was four back after two holes. He never got any closer.

Woods, a winner the last three times at Firestone, bogeyed three of his last seven holes and closed with a 70, six strokes behind. He tied for fourth at 6-under 274, along with Chris Riley (71).

Woods has never finished worse than fifth at Firestone, and he was the only player to give Clarke a serious fight.

Woods stuffed his tee shot into 2 feet on No. 7, skipped a wedge into 4 feet on No. 8 and suddenly was only two strokes behind.

Clarke was fearless as ever.

He birdied three of five holes -- starting with an 8-footer at No. 9 and finishing the stretch from 55 feet on the 13th -- to restore his big cushion and allow himself a comfortable journey along the back nine.

"I wanted to see how I could play, and if I played well enough, I would have a chance," Clarke said. "I wasn't really paying attention to the (leader) boards until I holed the putt on 13. Then, I thought I was doing OK."

Woods' chances ended with a tee shot into the bunker on No. 12, leading to a bogey, and another bogey from the bunker on No. 13.

"I needed to make two birdies early on the back nine and get myself up there, but it went the other way," Woods said.

Clarke led by three shots when he made the turn, and led by at least four over the final eight holes. That made the closing stretch a lot easier, especially the brick-hard 16th green on the 667-yard hole known as "The Monster."

Only one player among the final 26 managed a birdie, and that on a chip-in by Riley that would have rolled into the pond had it not struck the pin.

Hal Sutton made a 10.

Better yet for Clarke was standing in the 18th fairway with a four-shot lead and a sand wedge in his hands.

"I thought I could get down in five from there," he said.

Clarke's shot flew the green, and he saved par with a 10-foot putt. He doffed his visor as the gallery saluted a champion other than Tiger Woods for the first time since 1998.

Woods had won the last three times at Firestone.

This time, he came up against the wrong guy at the wrong time -- Clarke, living large and on top of his game.

The most difficulty Clarke faced Sunday was deciding how to celebrate. A private jet was waiting for him at a nearby airport, "hopefully bigger than the one I came on."

"I have yet to decide where it's going to take me," he said. "Opportunities are wide open."

Told the first-place check was $50,000 more than when he won the Match Play Championship, Clarke grinned.

"That won't last very long," said Clarke, who has never shied away from the pubs. "I think I'll go through most of that tonight. And I won't be trying very hard, either."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)