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Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Darren Clarke  (Getty Images)
Darren Clarke (Getty Images)
Darren Clarke is a changed man - a "Lean Mean Fighting Machine" according to his own website - as he kicks off his season in South Africa.

The Open Champion, awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours and runner-up in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, has been in the gym ahead of the Volvo Golf Champions at Fancourt.

Brilliant and career-defining though his victory at Sandwich was - it came 20 years after his first attempt to lift The Claret Jug - the last five months of 2011 were a big let-down for the 43 year old Northern Irishman and he does not want the same to be true of 2012.

"My golf career has been extended somewhat by winning The Open Championship and I just thought that enough is enough and it was time to get myself into better shape," he said.

As soon as the Christmas festivities were over Clarke began working with Belfast-based fitness expert Jonny Bloomfield, recommended to him by stablemate Lee Westwood's trainer Steve MacGregor.

"Jonny's a sports scientist and he's got me doing all sorts in the gym, having my eyes checked out, nutrition etc," Clarke said.

"Therefore my alcohol consumption is taking a massive dint... currently down to zero! However, no pain, no gain and I'm very excited about the route that we're going down.

"It's a long road, but I will give it my best shot."

Clarke's extraordinary win from 111th in the Official World Golf Ranking makes him exempt for The Open Championship until he is 61 and, after thinking his days competing in the Masters Tournament might be over, he will be at Augusta for the next five Aprils.

The man who won there last spring, South African Charl Schwartzel, is his playing partner in the opening round of this week's tournament - a 35-man no-cut event reserved for last year's European Tour winners and anyone with ten or more victories on the circuit.

That second category allows in Padraig Harrington, Colin Montgomerie and the Scot's successor as Ryder Cup captain José María Olazábal.

Montgomerie, now 48, will be playing the first 18 holes with someone who was not even born when he made his European Tour debut in 1986.

That is England's Tom Lewis, the 21 year old who with an opening 65 shot the lowest-ever round by an amateur in last July's Open and then three months later won on only his third professional start at the Portugal Masters.

Harrington partners Ernie Els at the start of what is a huge opportunity for both of them to re-ignite their careers.

Els is down to 71st in the rankings, but Harrington has fallen even further to 89th.

Neither will be in next month's World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play unless they climb back into the top 64 in the coming four weeks, but the Dubliner does at least know he will be in the Masters Tournament thanks to his more recent Major wins.

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