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Tim Clark must watch while elbow heals

There were plenty of hands for Tim Clark to shake on Monday at the State Cup, the annual fundraising tournament for the N.C. State golf programs. Problem was, he had to shake every single one awkwardly with his left hand, protecting his right arm.

Clark should be lording himself around Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., this weekend as the defending champion of The Players Championship, having broken through with his first PGA Tour win in the almost-major last year.

Instead, he doesn't even know if the sore right elbow that's bothered him all spring will even allow him to play, although he's going to try.

"I've got to be in Sawgrass for the week anyway," Clark said Monday. "I've started to get a little better here lately. It just kind of works out. And probably, I need to play just to see where I am. I haven't played at all. Maybe it's something that by playing will help me get better."

The elbow started bothering the South African after he returned from a second-place finish at the season-opening Sony Open in Hawaii, and what he believes is a case of tendinitis hasn't let up since.

He gritted his teeth through The Masters, playing surprisingly well given the circumstances before missing the cut. If he plays this week at TPC Sawgrass he'll have to do the same thing again in what would be only his fourth tournament of the year.

"I didn't expect anything, and all of a sudden I wake up one morning and my elbow was pretty sore," Clark said. "It's been almost three months now."

Sometimes, it seems like Clark can't catch a break. The 35-year-old finished in the top five 16 times before his win last summer, holding for a time the title of "Best Player Yet to Win on Tour" amid a streak of bad breaks that always seemed to leave him in second place - eight times, including the 2006 Masters.

Now, at the moment he should be reliving that breakthrough win, he's not even sure he'll get the chance to defend that title.

"You know, life gives you some funny bounces now and then," said Wolfpack golf coach Richard Sykes, for whom Clark was a three-time All-American from 1996-1998. "Where he's getting a lot of tough times right now, his wife just had a baby, which is a great time. Things balance out a little bit. He has something he can get well - it's just slow healing."

Whether Clark plays or not, he already has had an impact on the tournament. Traditionally, the flag of the defending champion flies at Sawgrass the week of the tournament, but Clark asked instead that they fly the Spanish flag in honor of the late Seve Ballesteros, who died Saturday.

He'll get to see the flag in person, because Clark said he's going to spend the week at Sawgrass whether he plays or not. But being a spectator is no substitute for being a participant.

"It's obviously going to be a special week to be back there," Clark said. "I kind of think back to last year and what happened. You don't often get a chance to reflect. This is a chance to remember how I played, and maybe it'll give me some confidence for when I do get back to playing."

Clark hit a few balls down in Charlotte over the weekend and wanted to get some chipping and putting in at Lonnie Poole on Monday. As he prepares to tough out his first title defense, there's a lot hinging on the health of his right elbow.