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Dick Harmon: Keith Clearwater's battle to return to winning golf mirrors many in U.S. Open field

Published: Friday, June 13 2014 6:25 p.m. MDT

Keith Clearwater hits out of a bunker on the 8th hole during the first round of the Colonial golf tournament, Thursday, May 22, 2008, in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Matt Slocum, ASSOCIATED PRESS

PROVO — Why is golf a game so elusive to master?

We’re seeing that as mega-superstars struggle at Pinehurst No. 2 in the U.S. Open this week. We see it in Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and the elephant in the room missing this week in Tiger Woods. And we’ve seen it in Keith Clearwater, who is playing in this week’s 75th Provo Open at East Bay Golf Club.

Injuries, tweaks in the swing, confidence, bad luck, issues off the course all become a part of it. Well, it doesn’t take much in high-level competitive golf to see the game you love become a mountain to climb.

Clearwater knows all that. He won the North-South Amateur at Pinehurst as a collegian the year after his BYU team won the NCAA title at Stanford. He set a nine-hole record at the Colonial in Fort Worth with a 61 playing with Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson. His same-day 64 at Colonial Country Club in 1987 remains a topic of conversation at Hogan’s Alley to this very day.

Then came real life. Golf took a back seat and Clearwater has struggled to get it back. He fired a three-under 69 Thursday during the Provo Open first round. On Friday he shot an even par 72 to lead the Senior Division. He regularly makes a trek back to the Colonial to play as a former champion.

In the mid-1990s, parental illness rocked Clearwater’s golf world. Chuck and Ann Clearwater became alcoholics. The addiction robbed them of their prime years and it took away their independence both physically, mentally, spiritually and financially. The golfer took his parents in, cared for them, fed and bathed them and tried everything he could to stop the destruction of their lives.

This put tremendous strain on Keith and his wife Sue. His parents both died from health issues. Then Sue got sick when Keith was in the middle of qualifying for the U.S. Open in 2001. He had just finished Tour School Qualifying and earned back his PGA Tour card when he withdrew from qualifying to care for his wife.

It’s been uphill ever since.

“I’ve been working really hard,” Clearwater said this week. “Pieces of my game are really good. All of them, when I separate them out, are pretty good. But when I go out and play, I’m not very good. I just need to put some mileage on my game right now.”

Clearwater says if you go to the range and watch him hit balls, you’d be impressed with how he makes contact, controls the ball flight, makes all the plays and shots.

“You’d say, wow, he should win every week. But as you know in golf, there is way more to the game. I’m kind of relearning how to get it done. All those intangibles are things I’m relearning. I like to pride myself in knowing how to play the game. Probably my biggest challenge right now is getting it done in getting those scores.”

And it’s true.

If you watch Clearwater put on a clinic, he knows his stuff. He can weave the airborne orb right or left, send the dimpled ball in the trajectory that seeks out pins and looks picture-perfect.

Then it comes to playing. And scoring.

This can be a very elusive game, and at the level you see played at Pinehurst this week, the line is very thin between being in the top 25 and missing the cut.

That’s what keeps us coming back, they say.

And it’s true.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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