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Friends keep it light under pressure

ANYONE WHO stumbled upon the final group playing in the last round of the West Virginia Open Friday might have been surprised by what they found.

Good friends Jonathan Clark and Craig Berner certainly kept things loose making a lap around the Edgewood Country Club golf course, along with playing partner Christian Brand.

You wouldn't have known a state championship hung in the balance. The atmosphere wasn't exactly stodgy or refined. In fact, it was probably more "Caddyshack'' than country club.

Like on the green at No. 10, when Clark paced off a 25-foot uphill putt while Berner was sizing up his own 15-footer.

"I don't know, I don't know,'' Clark said to Berner as they crossed paths.

"You'd better watch yourself,'' said Berner, Edgewood's head pro, in reply. "I've been known to make a few putts here.''

That's how it went most of the day. Clark eventually captured his second State Open championship, but all three had smiles on their faces as they exited the course late Friday afternoon.

"In my mind, that's a better way to play golf than stand out there and just not say a word to anybody and get in your own element,'' Clark said following the round. "We have a blast. That's what makes it fun about these State Opens. Whenever you're sitting around players that all get along and just have a blast, it's a good time.''

A few more glimpses of the final threesome:

Clark apologized for looking and looking at a difficult chip just off the No. 11 green.

"Take your time,'' Berner deadpanned. "We aren't going anywhere.''

Later, Clark nearly struck a putt on No. 16 as Berner was walking across to chase down his shot, which landed in a greenside bunker.

"That's all I need to do is putt while he's walking through there,'' Clark said amid laughter from the gallery.

Clark and Berner kept it so light-hearted that even Brand, more than a dozen years their younger, stuck a few zingers in there of his own.

Just before knocking in a downhill birdie putt at the 12th hole estimated at 60 feet, Brand bemoaned the fact that his caddie had gone back to the cart for something.

"It'd be nice to have a caddie right now to hold the pin for me,'' Brand beckoned.

Also on No. 16, as storm clouds gathered and thunder rumbled in the distance, Berner asked Brand if he was satisfied with putting out instead of waiting.

"I'm all right,'' Brand said. "I'm just trying not to get struck.''

Brand said he felt at ease trading barbs with the two good friends, who had never before played a single round together at the State Open, but wound up playing all three rounds together this week.

"You have to [fire back],'' Brand said. "If you don't, they'll run you over with their trash talk. We had fun today.

"We all know each other. We're all three Charleston-area guys and we play a lot of golf together. Today, it was easy-going. They're both great champions. They're fun. They're best friends, and I just tried to tag along today.''

Sometimes, one didn't even need to be in Clark and Berner's group to get pulled into the jet stream.

On Thursday, Clark and Berner's threesome found itself alternating tee shots with a group on nearby No. 18 that included Brad Westfall of Grafton. Clark and Westfall traded barbs with ease.

"You'd better get down,'' Westfall warned Clark just before he teed off. "You might get caught in the vapor trail.''

Clark delighted in retelling that tale a day later.

"Westfall's just a whole 'nother breed,'' Clark said. "He and I will dog at each other until the end of the round. A lot of people think it's in bad jest, but I'll tell you it's all good jest with he and I. Just good friends talking. If we're not beating on each other, then something's wrong. There's somebody not happy.''

Berner was disappointed with the way he played Friday, a 4-over 74, but still seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth banter with Clark.

"It's been that way all week,'' Berner said afterward. "When we saw our pairing from Day 1, we were going to have a good time. We had a good time today. Christian had a good time with us, I think, and he played good.

"As a competitor, I hate it because he's won two [titles] and I've won one - especially on my home soil. He did a good job. I thought if it was anybody, I hate to say it, but I'm glad he won it more than anyone else.''

Clark even kept his sense of humor following a 32-minute weather delay for lightning in the area. He had but 11/2 holes left to play at that juncture, and the stoppage only served to postpone his coronation.

"Hey, if you blow a six-shot lead . . . ,'' one reporter started to say while walking alongside Clark on the 18th fairway.

"Easy there, Jean van de Velde,'' Clark immediately shot back, referring to the French golfer whose collapse at the 1999 British Open has become legendary.

Even after the round, Berner couldn't resist one last shot at Clark.

While Berner and Brand were seated at the scorer's tent signing their cards, Clark was being congratulated by a tournament official just off the 18th green.

"You may want to sign this before you celebrate,'' Berner hollered.

Like everything else, Clark took it in stride.

"That's Craig Berner and I,'' Clark said. "He's one of my best friends. He probably is my best friend. He and I travel together every week to go to Pittsburgh. We do a lot of things together. I probably talk to him every single day of the week. He is my buddy.

"He and I met for breakfast this morning and we talked. We said if one of us doesn't win it, then the other one better. We sort of took that motivation at the beginning of the week that we were going to thrive off each other, and take it on and go.

"Christian fits in that mold - a great guy, ex-Marshall player and he and I have gotten to know each other for years. He knows what Craig and I are about. He understands that atmosphere.''

Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or rickryan@wvgazette.com.

 


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