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Clark just wants to stay calm

South African's joyful approach has paid off

Friday, April 01, 2011

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Tim Clark has always said his biggest thrill in golf was playing in his first Masters Tournament as an amateur in 1998.

Tim Clark (left), of South Africa, has had success at Augusta National despite not being one of golf's longer hitters. (Corey Perrine/Staff)

In the 13 years that have passed, nothing has topped it, the South African said.

Not finishing as the Masters runner-up in 2006.

And not even winning the 2010 Players Championship, which was his first PGA Tour victory in 204 career starts.

"That's definitely the highlight," Clark said of the 1998 Masters, which he qualified for by winning the 1997 U.S. Public Links title.

Clark shot 80-78 and missed the cut in the 1998 Masters, but there was much more to that experience than golf.

"My parents came over to watch me, and that's the only time my dad has ever been outside of Africa, and my brother caddied for me," Clark said.

"It's a great experience to be able to do that," he said of playing in the Masters as an amateur.

"It's quite a nerve-wracking experience and it's just a great honor. At the time you're seeing all of your heroes playing in the tournament and you get to meet them. The guys are always very friendly towards the amateurs and give you advice. It was a great experience."

At 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Clark is not one of the tour's longest hitters (he ranked 188th in driving distance in 2010), which would appear to hurt him on the par-5s at the 7,435-yard Augusta National Golf Club. But he's had success on them because of his superb wedge game, which has resulted in some high finishes in his nine Masters starts. In addition to his runner-up finish in 2006, Clark finished in the top 15 three other times.

"The course is very difficult normally, and I feel like I'm always going to come there and have a hard time and struggle," he said. "But I think the thing I do best is I try and come and enjoy the tournament and have fun and enjoy the fact that I'm at the Masters, a place I've dreamt of coming to as a youngster and watched on TV for so many years.

"You can either go one way, come and stress about what you're going to do, or just come and enjoy it," Clark said.

That attitude helped Clark open with 68 in the first-round of the 2009 Masters, putting him three shots off the lead.

"It really allowed me to stay relaxed out there, and I was not worried about what I was shooting," Clark said after that round. "Just taking it one shot at a time and smelling the roses, as they say."

That he's been in contention at Augusta National will pay off if he gets in that position again, Clark believes.

"This is an extremely demanding tournament, and I've been here on Saturday and Sunday in the final groups, and it's a tough experience," he said.

"I know what it takes to win this tournament, and you certainly cannot come here with that in mind starting out. You just really have to take it one day at a time.

''If that happens one day, great. But like I say, I'm just really trying to enjoy it.

''It's one of those things, it's almost easier to win this tournament sort of coming from behind and sort of sneaking up there on Sunday."

In his nine-plus years on the PGA Tour, Clark has earned nearly $18 million.

"I'm a great admirer of Tim Clark at his size to achieve what he has," said fellow South African Gary Player, a three-time Masters champion.

Before he won The Players Championship last year, Clark had recorded eight runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour.

"It wasn't something that really bothered me, and I guess that's probably why I don't feel like anything's changed," he said. "I mean this game is tough enough. And every week we get out there and we try hard, and it doesn't always happen.

''I just had to believe that it would happen at some stage.

"I think had I not won a tournament and come to the end of my tour career, there would have been some issues," Clark said. "And I probably would have needed some help with that."

Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3224 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.

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