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Home favourite Darren Clarke takes surprise lead at Open

Home favourite Darren Clarke takes surprise lead at Open
© Reuters
Clarke's playing partner James Sugrue was just one shot behind him on Thursday morning.

Former champion Darren Clarke enjoyed a dream start to his home Open after taking an unexpected early lead on day one of the 148th championship.

The 2011 winner, given the honour of hitting the opening tee shot at 6.35am at Royal Portrush, relived former glories in front of an adoring crowd with three birdies in his opening six holes.

Clarke, who owns a house overlooking the course, holed a 15-foot putt at the first and then a brilliant approach to three feet at the short third moved him to two under, with a third birdie following at another par three, the sixth.

Darren Clarke tees off the fifth at Royal Portrush
Darren Clarke tees off the fifth at Royal Portrush (David Davies/PA)

That was better than any of the other early starters could manage, with Clarke’s playing partner James Sugrue, the Amateur Championship winner from Ireland, one behind after leaving his eagle attempt at the par-five second short and then holing a 30-footer at the par-three sixth.

With early morning sunshine piercing the cloudy skies, Clarke was welcomed on the first tee to huge cheers.

The 50-year-old, who now plays on the veterans’ Champions Tour in the United States, has missed the cut in three of the last four years at the Open but, after sharing a few words with victorious Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn, he got off to a confidence-boosting start in breezy conditions.

Is there a pot of gold for the winner at Royal Portrush?
Is there a pot of gold for the winner at Royal Portrush? (David Davies/PA)

And he survived his first real test at the fourth where he had to hole a six-footer for par to avoid dropping his first shot, retaining his lead and ensuring his fairy tale continued.

An hour into his round the first of the rain arrived to increase the difficulty level at Royal Portrush, hosting its first Open since 1951.

Clarke’s fellow Northern Irishman and bookies’ favourite Rory McIlroy, who set the course record of 61 at Portrush as a 16-year-old, was due off at 10.09 and guaranteed the biggest gallery of the morning starters.

Spectators watch from a balcony with a banner of support for Clarke
Spectators watch from a balcony with a banner of support for Clarke (David Davies/PA)

A terrible swing by Clarke at the par-five seventh saw him send his second into heavy rough on the right, meaning he had to declare an unplayable lie which eventually cost him a bogey.

That brought him back into the pack on two under, which included England’s Eddie Pepperell and compatriot Andrew Johnston, who eagled the second, and Ireland’s Shane Lowry and Sugrue.

However, Frenchman Romain Langasque emerged from the group with a third birdie of the day when an 18ft putt dropped at the seventh and to compound matters Clarke, who had turned in 34, saw his 15-footer for par slide by the hole at the 11th to fall two behind the new leader.

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