Clarke fighting to be fit to defend Open crown

Last year's Open winner Darren Clarke
Last year's Open winner Darren Clarke
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OPEN golf champion Darren Clarke has pulled out of the US Open in San Francisco so that he will be in the right shape for the defence of the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham and St Annes next month.

Clarke is hardly in prime form at present – indeed, he has yet to make a halfway cut this year, which is hardly the best portent for the challenge that lies ahead at Lytham.

The 43-year-old has been advised to rest a groin problem that first bothered him the week before the US Masters in April, and then re-surfaced at the recent BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.

Clarke has also withdrawn from next week’s Nordea Masters in Sweden, so his next appearance is now expected to be the Irish Open at Royal Portrush starting on June 28.

“I am extremely disappointed as Open champion that I will not be able to play the US Open,” said the Northern Irishman, who earned a five-year exemption with his victory at Sandwich.

“But I have to make sure I am 100 per cent ready for Royal Lytham (his Open defence is on July 19-22) and I have been advised not to play for a month.

“I’ve not been able to get through the ball properly and I don’t want to take any chances.”

Clarke, who has played only two US Opens since 2004, has not had a single top-10 finish since his triumph last summer, when he finally achieved his dream of a major title 20 years after he made his debut.

He jumped from 11th in the world to 30th with that, but is already back down to 73rd.

Clarke was on course to survive the cut at Wentworth in the PGA until he came home in a six-over-par 43 for a second round 77 that put him out by three shots.

Clarke came close to winning the last time the Open took place at Lytham in 2001.

He was eventual champion David Duval’s closest challenger until running up a double bogey six on the penultimate hole that cost him any chance of victory and outright second place.

In the end, Clarke had to make do with a fourth round 70 and a six-way tie for third.

He is one of a number of high-profile players pushing for Royal Portrush to be restored to the Open rota.

The Royal and Ancient say they have no plans to do so, but if that situation changed, Lytham would have to wait until the 2020s before the next Open to come to the world-famous Links Gate venue.