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The fact that he is one of the Tour's quiet men has enhanced Clark's credibility on the issue. Amiable and self-effacing, he drinks red wine, enjoys a game of darts and warbles to Australian rock bands such as INXS and Midnight Oil. "I think a lot of guys sympathize with Tim because he's such a nice guy," says Immelman. "We've known each other since we were kids, and he's always been like that."
It helps that Clark plays a brand of golf that is more inspiring than awe-inspiring. Born in Durban, he took up the game as a toddler and became proficient before he was aware that his arms were dodgy. He played at North Carolina State and earned his first Masters invitation by virtue of his victory at the 1997 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. Since turning pro the following year, he has won 14 times on four continents, played on three Presidents Cup teams and needs only a high finish in the Open Championship to complete the Missed It by That Much Slam, having finished second in the Masters (2006), tied for third at the U.S. Open ('05) and third at the PGA ('03). He has done all this despite never finishing better than 140th in the Tour's driving-distance ranking and with the additional burden of his disability, which makes conventional chipping and pitch shots problematic.
"Tim plays to his strengths," says Tour veteran Stuart Appleby. "He's unbelievably accurate with a lot of clubs that very few people can hit. He's got that I'm-going-to-beat-you look about his game."
Like most Clark fans, Appleby was blown away when the man known as Penguin shot a final-round 67 to win the 2010 Players Championship. Clark even impressed himself, overcoming career-worst nerves to hit the island-green 17th in the final round ("Just teeing the ball up is hard in that situation," he says) and then nailing his drive on the watery 18th. "That was probably the best tee shot I've ever hit," he says. "I'm a guy who averages 270, and I think I hit that thing 310 yards down the left side."
An elbow injury sidelined Clark for the last 7½ months of 2011, but he has shown flashes of his old form this year, finishing second at the Sony Open and 11th at the Masters before the near miss at Colonial. That makes him someone to watch at Merion, a traditional parkland design with narrow fairways, deep rough and a history of rewarding shotmakers. "A lot of courses are long but wide open," he explains. "That only favors the longer hitter." But when a tight, fast setup forces the big boys to hit five-woods or irons off the tee, Clark sticks with his driver, confident of finding the fairway. "That gives me an advantage because I'm hitting shorter clubs to the green," he says. "If I'm out in front of you in the fairway, I like my chances."
If Merion's greens get too firm to hold approaches, Clark will have to cope with his suddenly not-so-funny disability. "Pitching is extremely hard because I have a hard time opening the clubface without opening my whole body," he says. "Luckily for me, you don't have to get that close to the ball for bunker shots and shots outside 30 or 40 yards. It's more like a full shot, so that's always been a strength of mine."
At Merion, of course, he'll be putting with a broomstick held to his chest, reminding us of his endangered status and causing his blue-blazered USGA hosts to squirm.
"They say it's not in the tradition of the game," Clark says. "But the game has evolved over hundreds of years. We're not hitting the feathery and the wooden shaft. There are hybrids and 460cc drivers. So why target a small group of players who are using a certain style of putter?"
Hearing the argument that anchored putting minimizes the role of the hands, making a golfer immune to pressure, Clark snorts. "I can completely dispel that," he says with a laugh, "because I've been there, and I know. You feel the same nerves and pressure with the long putter. At the end of the day, putting comes down to confidence and mind-set. You can putt however you want, but if you're not in the right place mentally, you're not going to make many putts."
Asked directly if his supination deficit was a disability, he says, "I think it is. I mean, there's a medical term for it." But as he always does, he adds, "I don't see this as an unfair ruling just for me. I think it's an unfair ruling, period."