Carke has major goals but family his no 1 priority
FEW know better than Darren Clarke that life's most significant battles are fought far from the fairway, and that a man's greatest triumphs usually are achieved in private.
Ten years ago, the volcanic, cigar-chomping Ulsterman was Ireland's brightest hope at the Majors as he marched imperiously into the world's top 10.
A new century had dawned with his victory over the 'unbeatable' Tiger Woods at the Accenture World Match Play and it seemed only a matter of time before he would make his breakthrough at golf's Grand Slams.
Yet destiny had different ideas, presenting Clarke and his young family with challenges which would dwarf any he had faced in sport; and they have prevailed.
Sitting in the cool of a desert evening, Clarke yesterday reflected on the good life he and his two boys, Tyrone (12) and Conor (10), have made for themselves, especially since last summer's return 'home' to Portrush.
Now 42, Clarke's hair is grey but his eyes sparkled with mirth and mischief as he chatted about his fiancee, former Miss Northern Ireland Alison Campbell -- how they met and even how adroitly she deals with his infamous 'strops'.
"Listen," he said. "Alison owns and runs the most successful model agency in Belfast. She has travelled the globe with Miss World. She's world-wise and well able for me, even my strops. She lets me stew for a while, ignores it really."
Graeme McDowell was their match-maker, giving Clarke Campbell's phone number on the Sunday night after the final round of the Hong Kong Open in November 2009.
"G-Mac is very friendly with one of Alison's models at home and both conspired to give me her number, so I sent her a text -- it's always easier by text. I asked if she'd like to come to dinner in London the following Friday and she said she would.
"When I got home on the Tuesday, I went on the internet, trying to find pictures to see what she looked like. I figured if she was a model herself, she'd be a very nice lady, and I wasn't wrong."
Clarke proposed at a Christmas party last December. Refusing to reveal if he'd gone on bended knee, he'd only say: "I did everything like a gentleman."
Clarke's fiancee and two boys were with him at the recent Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and it was splendid to see how happy they all were together. "Alison and the boys get on really well," he said.
"I've been through a lot but they've been through much more, because they're kids. I'm unbelievably proud of how the two of them have turned out. They've done fantastically well."
There was no hiding from the impact of his late wife Heather's battle with cancer. First diagnosed in 2002, she recovered, but her respite was all too brief. She fought like a tigress before passing in August 2006.
"I obviously was very unhappy for a long, long time because of those circumstances," Clarke said. "I'm not putting the blame on anything. I don't mean it that way. It was what it was and we had to deal with it as best we could. But, no matter how much of a brave face you put on, it was a difficult time -- to still stay out here and try to compete. It was hard enough but things have moved on now and we are happy.
"The boys will forever miss and remember their mum but they are happy. Ask anybody who finds themselves in that sort of scenario and they'll always tell you the kids come first, adults second. Make sure they're all right, because if they are okay, things will be fine."
Out of heart-rending tragedy, Clarke has forged a relationship with his boys closer than many other fathers who travel for a living. "I'm very fortunate from that point of view," he said.
Importantly, the move home to Portrush means that Tyrone and Conor can be day boys at school, not boarders, so they can spend more time with their dad when he's home.
"It's just nice to be home in Portrush," Clarke said. "The boys are down at the golf club all the time, chipping and putting, getting lessons from the professional. They are playing Royal Portrush and the Valley and at Bushfoot. It's lovely.
"I get to spend more time with them now than when I was living in London."
Clarke likes nothing better than to while away the time on the putting green with his sons. "Tyrone can properly play," he said. "His handicap is 19 but it should be about 12. His best score is 76 at Bushfoot.
"I was away flying somewhere and he phoned me at the airport. I says, 'Hello Tyrone', and he says, 'Hello, father'. He says, 'I've just played Bushfoot and I've had four birdies, father, and I've just had my first hole-in-one'.
"I said, 'What hole was that on Tyrone?'. 'It was the seventh,' he said. 'I hit a soft little six-iron 156 yards and it dropped right into the hole'. I said, 'Well done, Tyrone'. He said, 'Thank you, father'."
How stark the contrast with the autumn of 2006, when the high of Clarke's heroic Ryder Cup performance at the K Club was followed by inky blackness. "I just turned off my emotions until after the Ryder Cup," he explained.
"I managed to hold everything together at the K Club, but the following week the enormity of what had happened with Heather hit me like a ton of bricks.
"Everything felt horrible, but you've got to keep going. Anybody would do the same."
Clarke rails at the description of the 2006 Ryder Cup as the iconic moment of a career which boasts two World Golf Championship victories among 19 wins worldwide.
"I'm not finished yet, you muppet," he snapped. "I'm as ambitious as I've ever been. That's why I'm out here playing six tournaments in a row. I'm better from tee to green than I've ever been, probably fitter too.
"I'm just not putting well enough," added Clarke, who shared the lead on Sunday last at the Volvo Champions in Bahrain before a couple of ill-judged and poorly executed wedge shots at the back of the ninth green led to a momentum-busting bogey.
He finished eighth behind winner Paul Casey but moved on to this week's Qatar Masters convinced that a big breakthrough, even at golf's Grand Slams, is not beyond him.
Yet it's no longer the ultimate goal in his life. "My boys will always come first. I'd much prefer to have everything in order for them at home than win a Major," he said.
"My desire is there. My determination is there. I want to win all the big tournaments but if I have my choice of Majors or my kids, I'll pick my kids every day."