AKRON, Ohio, Aug. 24 - Darren Clarke heard the cheers ahead of him and figured they were for Tiger Woods, making an early charge at the NEC Invitational on a Firestone course where he has won three times. Clarke was playing well enough to ignore them. Besides, beating Woods in a World Golf Championship is nothing new.
Clarke whipped the world’s No. 1 player in the 36-hole final of the Match Play Championship three years ago. He beat back another challenge by Woods on Sunday to join him as the only multiple winners of the WGC events.
“I don’t know which was more tougher,” Clarke said after closing with a 3-under 67 for a four-stroke victory over 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,” he said. “That day, I played as well as I could and Tiger didn’t. Today, I was competing against more guys, as well as Tiger.”
After dispatching of Woods, his only serious challenger, Clarke was only competing against himself.
Despite two meaningless bogeys on his final four holes, Clarke claimed the $1.05 million prize at 12-under 268, the first European 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 were better than his 67, and they all finished before Clarke, a 35-year-old from Northern Ireland, 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.
Still, he was the only player to give Clarke a serious fight.
He 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.
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,” Clarke 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, a 35-year-old from Northern Ireland 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.”
A dozen players were within five shots of Clarke when the final round began under another day of blazing sunshine.
It didn’t take long for it to turn into a two-man race.
Clarke holed a 12-foot eagle putt on the second hole to build a three-stroke lead, and he led by as many as five shots on the front nine.
Woods at least made him work for it.
Despite several good birdie chances that got away — a three-putt par from 18 feet on No. 2, birdie putts from inside 10 feet on Nos. 5 and 6 — Woods found his range from the fairway, and back-to-back birdies on Nos. 7 and 8 took him to 9 under.
This wasn’t anything like the Match Play Championship, as Woods was playing in the pairing ahead of Clarke. Still, there were enough cheers that both players had a pretty good idea what was going on.
“There was a couple of roars, but thankfully not that many,” Clarke said. “So, I knew he wasn’t making eagles and doing what he usually does.”
Woods won the last three times at Firestone in a variety of fashions — a nail-biter over Phil Mickelson one year, an 11-shot win the next, and a seven-hole playoff over Jim Furyk two years ago.
He was poised for a comeback this year, but Woods was facing the wrong guy for that — especially at a World Golf Championship.
Divots: Gene Sauers had a bad ending to a bad week at Firestone. He chipped off the first green, pitched back to 25 feet, then hit his bogey putt off the green. That led to a quadruple-bogey 8. Two holes later, Sauers hit four balls in the water and made 10. “I just have no idea where the ball is going right now,” he said. “It’s embarrassing.” Sauers shot 82, playing the final 10 holes even par. The standard bearer never changed his score from the 16 over at the start of the round. Good-natured as always, Sauers turned to a teenager at one point and said, “Can you change that to a red number?” ... Jay Haas had a 5-under 65. His playing partner, Charles Howell III, who was born two years after Haas joined the PGA Tour, had a 66. They had a best-ball score of 59. ... British Open champion Ben Curtis, who got married Saturday night after the third round, had an even-par 70. He plans to take his honeymoon next month before playing in the Lancome Trophy in France.
Latest golf video
Merion showed the players who the real winner was
The U.S. Open at Merion was a week to remember for Justin Rose and the fans, but it was a week to forget for just about everyone else. Merion did the unthinkable and made the "Immortals" look human.
Top 10 'accessible' golf courses
From California to Florida, these amazing greens are open for anyone to play.