The Open: Clarke and Westwood relishing Birkdale return

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Darren Clarke had a mortifying experience during his Open Championship debut at Royal Birkdale 26 years ago, but cannot wait to be back at "one of the best courses we play" next week.

In the 1991 Open, Clarke had to overcome the embarrassment of an errant drive striking a notable spectator.

Recalling his memories of the Southport course in an exclusive interview with Omnisport, the Northern Irishman said with a smile: "I hit Barbara Nicklaus, the great Jack Nicklaus' wife, on the head off the 16th tee, I believe, in my first Open Championship.

"But Birkdale is a wonderful golf course - it's one of the best courses we play. And it's always a brilliant event whenever we get up there as well. The crowds are fantastic, so I'm looking forward to it."

The last two Opens at Birkdale have concluded with not a single player under par, Padraig Harrington triumphing by four shots with a three-over aggregate total in 2008.

Strong winds made scoring particularly difficult in the year Harrington retained the Claret Jug and both Clarke and fellow European Tour veteran Lee Westwood are prepared for a similar challenge this time around.

Clarke, who memorably won The Open at Royal St George's in 2011, said: "If the wind blows, it's going to be tough. It's always tough if the wind blows there, but we will see.

"I was there a few weeks ago, saw the golf course and it's in fantastic shape, so that augurs well for the tournament."

Westwood told Omnisport: "Like all links golf courses, [the difficulty] is dependent on the weather conditions. It can get really windy there. When Padraig won, it blew a gale, so it will all be dependent on that.

"Hopefully you get the luck of the draw, or there is no luck of the draw with the weather in the mornings and afternoons.

"I think it's one of the fairest tests on the Open rota. It's a great links course, probably in my top three. I really enjoy playing it.

"It is a bit of a brute of a golf course. I don't know how they've set it up but normally they set it up quite fairly.  And it doesn't really matter what score wins, as long as you've got it, as long as you finish a shot in front of everyone else."

An Open victory for Westwood would be particularly sweet given the Englishman's raft of near-misses in major championships. He has registered 11 top-five finishes without tasting success.

"I've come close, obviously," said Westwood of an Open record that features a trio of top-three finishes.

"I three-putted the last [to miss out on a play-off] when [Stewart] Cink beat [Tom] Watson in a play-off at Turnberry.

"That's probably the closest I've got, but I had a second-place finish at St Andrews to Louis Oosthuizen and was third when Phil Mickelson won at Muirfield - I was in the last group there and leading going into the last round.

"My links game is pretty good and, if everything clicks, hopefully I'll have a chance. I'm really looking forward to it. It's always nice to play Open Championships in England in front of a home crowd."