By Martin Breheny
A howling wind may have driven icy rain across the Irish landscape one recent Sunday, but three super performers at international level lifted the gloom.
Golfer Darren Clarke, runner Mark Carroll and snooker player Ken Doherty made Feb. 27 a day to remember in Irish sport as they powered to victory in San Diego, Ghent and Malta respectively.
Clarke’s amazing 4 and 3 victory over Tiger Woods in the final of the Anderson Consulting World Match Play championship will go down in history as possibly the greatest ever triumph by an Irish golfer. The 31-year-old Dungannon man was a 66-to-1 outsider at the start of the championship but produced some magnificent golf to qualify for the final against the world’s acknowledged No. 1.
Having beaten David Duval in the semifinal, Clarke was quietly confident of upsetting Woods but was given little chance by the experts at the La Costa course. However, he proved them all wrong with a stunning performance. Level after 18 holes, Clarke produced some scintillating golf in the second 18 and at four down with six to play, there was no way back for Woods.
Clarke won $1 million for his efforts and sparked off a massive party in his native Dungannon. Locals had crammed into bars and clubs all evening to witness the incredible drama unfolding on their TV screens and gasped in amazement as their hometown hero outgunned Woods.
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The win hoists Clarke up to 14th on the world rankings and he is now convinced that he can make it into the top 10 by the end of the season.
A few hours before Clarke recorded his great victory, Carroll, a Corkman, stood proudly as the Irish National anthem rung out in the Flanders Arena in Ghent after he had blazed to victory in the final of the 3,000 meters at the European indoors championships.
He stormed home in 7 minutes, 49.24 seconds, beating Rui Silva (Portugal) and John Mayock (Britain). It was a truly outstanding effort by the 28-year-old Carroll, whose career has been dogged by injury. He blitzed Europe’s best with a devastating finish after playing a patient and tactically expert waiting game.
He was fourth with two laps to go but injected real pace from there on to leave the star-studded field trailing helplessly.
"I had been doing some fantastic sessions in training and I felt that if I reproduced that, I could win," Carroll said. "Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of remaining confident in a race and I did that this time. I want this to be a big year for me and with the Olympics coming along later, this is the ideal way to launch the season."
Carroll’s triumph overshadowed the performance of James Nolan, who took gold in the 1,500 on the day before. It was still a highly satisfying effort by the 23 year-old UCD student, who, like Carroll, has his sights set on the Sydney Olympics in September.
A remarkable Sunday was completed by Dubliner Ken Doherty, who won the Malta snooker Grand Prix in Valletta. He demolished World No. 3, Mark Williams of Wales, 9-3, in the final to take the £50,000 first prize. Doherty finished runner-up in the British Masters two weeks ago and has bounced back to his best form at the most important part of the season. The World Championship, which Doherty won in 1997, begins in Sheffield in mid-April and Doherty, who is now ranked eighth in the world, could emerge as a real contender to regain the title.