Darren Clarke has found true love again and rediscovered his touch on the golf course as he leads the British Open at Sandwich – with Rory McIlroy waiting in the wings to pounce on Saturday.
Clarke is joint leader alongside Lucas Glover on four under after a windy second day at Royal St George’s that saw McIlroy improve to a level par total for the tournament.
As play came to a close, the big name casualties in Kent are likely to include former winner Padraig Harrington and definitely includes Clarke’s match-maker Graeme McDowell.
The two top ranked players in the world – Luke Donald and Lee Westwood – also made their exit as did Ian Poulter, Ernie Els and the American Ben Curtis who won the Open at Sandwich eight years ago.
Harrington’s dismal showing – he finished on four over par to almost certainly miss the cut by one as play came to a close on Friday– and McDowell’s implosion with a disastrous 77 were major second round talking points.
But all Irish eyes were on Clarke’s name at the top of the leaderboard.
After he fired a second successive 68, Tyrone native Clarke revealed how happiness off the course is helping him perform on it and all thanks to a blind date set up by fellow golfer McDowell.
Five years after he lost his wife Heather to breast cancer, Clarke is now engaged to former Miss Northern Ireland Alison Campbell.
“I’ve got a wonderful fiancée. Alison is a great girl and instrumental in my getting my life back on track,” said Clarke.
Third in the British Open at Royal Lytham a decade ago, Clarke has seen fellow Irishmen Harrington, McDowell and McIlroy win Majors in the recent past.
Asked about his chances of seeing the job through over the next two days, Clarke added: “It would mean an awful lot, but obviously this is only after two rounds - there is an awful long way to go yet.
“And I believe the forecast for the weekend is very, very poor. I quite look forward to that, but the course is going to play very, very tough.
“If that’s the case, then the tournament is still wide open for an awful lot of players and will be.”
McIlroy joined Clarke in the field for the final two rounds with a battling one under par round of 69 to move to level par for the tournament.
The reigning US Open champion produced a brilliant bunker shot before saving par on the last as he kept Clarke and Glover within his sights.
First round leaders Thomas Bjorn and amateur Tom Lewis both slipped back as weather forecasters predicted lashing rain and storms for Saturday.
The 2010 US Open champion, McDowell was very self-critical after a 77 ensured a weekend off for the Portrush native as he three putted three greens to go from two under to five over.
“I was ready for this tournament but by the time I walked off the first green yesterday I wasn’t ready any more, it’s very frustrating,” said McDowell.
“I’ve always enjoyed the mental side of the game but I wouldn’t say I’m enjoying it so much right now because I’m a bit of a mental case out there.
“I need an attitude readjustment. I need to care a bit less about the game. My attitude has been pretty average the last two days, just not having a lot of belief or confidence in myself.
“I’ve been doing a little work with sports psychologist Bob Rotella so maybe I need to do a little more, get on the couch and tell him all my problems.
“You can’t wait for the golf ball to make you feel happy because it ain’t going to make you feel happy every day.”
McDowell did admit that he is finding it hard to replicate his US Open success last year.
“It’s hard not to compare to last year. I didn’t set out in 2011 trying to eclipse 2010 but deep inside I know I can do it, so maybe I want it too badly,” added the Irishman.
“This is the Open. We are under pressure. We want to do well - maybe I’ve been trying a little too hard the last couple