Saturday 21 January 2017

Champion right at home in Portrush's welcoming embrace

Darren Clarke's move back to the North has helped him to fulfil his great potential, writes John O'Brien

Published 24/07/2011 | 05:00

As soon as Darren Clarke sank his putt for par on the 16th green at Royal St George's last Sunday, Gary McNeill knew the Claret Jug was in safe keeping. Clarke had three shots in hand with two holes to play. Bigger leads had been blown in the course of Open history, of course, but not this time, not on this blissful day by the Kent seaside. All week nobody had swung with greater precision. Nobody had seemed more at peace with himself. Well, Tom Watson apart perhaps. Finally, gloriously, Clarke's time had arrived.

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McNeill nestled his way through the throng and found a position close to the 17th tee. He felt the wind blowing across from right to left and knew instinctively what would happen next. He watched Clarke set himself up for a fade and the combination of wind and stroke guiding the ball safely onto the fairway, precisely where he had wanted it. Later they would talk about the shot and how Clarke had reached that point that comes to a golfer, if he is lucky, a handful of times during a career: perfection.

For 12 years McNeill has been the head professional at Royal Portrush in the town Clarke made his home last August after a number of years living near London. All week the new Open champion has fielded questions about the input Portrush has had in the recent upsurge in the fortunes of Irish golf and struggled to give a definitive answer. They all have. "Maybe there's some X-factor there," smiles McNeill. "It's nothing we're feeding them anyway."

It's hard to escape the figures, though. Ireland has produced five Major winners and each of them, to varying degrees, has a connection to Portrush. Fred Daly and Graeme McDowell are sons of the town. Pádraig Harrington is an honorary member and, from the start of his amateur career, hailed Royal Portrush as one of his favourite courses. "Drive and a wedge in the morning," he would say fondly, "drive and a five iron in the afternoon." Rory McIlroy famously shot 61 here at 16. And Clarke, though a native of Dungannon, chose it as his home and the place where he wanted to raise his children.

It is, unquestionably, a golfing town. On the approach from Belfast the first thing you notice is the sign celebrating McDowell's 2010 US Open victory and, to your right, the imposing Dunluce course rolling down towards the sea. Where else would you see this? Ballybunion, perhaps, but then in the popular imagination the great Kerry links is more associated with visiting American dignitaries than native Irish Major winners.

"Portrush is a brilliant place," says McNeill. "It's a small town but it has everything. It has good schools. It's got good restaurants and pubs in the harbour. The kids grow up with golf and surfing. People enjoy it here. It's very scenic. It's a nice place to be. It makes you feel good just to be around the place, to be near the sea and the coastline."

It is where, over the course of a year, Clarke found happiness and peace of mind and, in the context of the Open Championship, those qualities cannot be over-emphasised. Although it is true that several factors contributed to Clarke's three-shot victory -- imperious ball-striking, nerveless putting, good fortune -- it isn't too much of an exaggeration to suggest that moving home was the critical ingredient, that everything else followed from that one decision.

"I think the whole thing fitted in nicely for him," says his friend-cum-manager Chubby Chandler. "He made the decision to come home in September 2009. Then in November he met his fiancée Alison. Graeme fixed them up on a blind date. He was due to come home in August 2010, so that worked out perfectly. She's a very independent lady, very together and business-like. So he found a bit of happiness after a long stretch where life was tough."

In 2009, it had been three years since Clarke's wife, Heather, had died from breast cancer. The heroics of the 2006 Ryder Cup were a fading memory. His golf was in decline and his personal life was in turmoil. That September he sat down with Chandler and wondered how he would dig himself out of the black hole that had enveloped him. Chandler could see only one escape hatch.

"I told him you have to go back to Ireland. Because he had no friends in London, no social life. He'd get home from tournaments and wouldn't go out. He had nobody to go for a pint with. And when you're the way Darren is, that's a massive part of your life missing. He was very down. So I said you have to go home. Your mum and dad are there, your sister is there. He had an infrastructure already there. And you know what he's like. Within two days he'd made his mind up."

Although McDowell's situation was different, the echoes between their stories are compelling. While Clarke was being feted for his Ryder Cup heroics, McDowell was enduring the worst spell of his career. He had changed his game and his life in vain pursuit of a place on Ian Woosnam's team, living between Manchester and Cardiff, and when he reached his lowest ebb -- working for radio at The K Club instead of playing -- McDowell knew it was time to reassess his priorities.

The first step, he later explained, was purchasing a beach-side apartment in Portrush and getting back in touch with his roots, remembering the kid whose mother would drop him off at Rathmore in the morning and, 54 holes later, collect him again in the evening. He spends much of his time in his home in Orlando, of course, but Portrush is where he seems happiest, kicking back with friends, hitting shots from various angles on his beloved Valley Course.

Clearly, Irish golf is the biggest winner here. It's not just that Irish golfers are enjoying worldwide success but doing so while remaining close to their roots, visible and often accessible to ever-growing numbers of kids who view them as role models. The message it sends out is clear: why would aspiring golfers want to leave a country which boasts several of the finest courses in the world?

In hindsight, Clarke's chances of victory last week were obvious. Would there have been a shot he faced at Royal St George's, a particularly tricky situation, that he wouldn't have encountered many times over at Royal Portrush during the year? Chandler isn't sure how many rounds Clarke would have played at Royal Portrush since he came home, but knows it is a lot. "Put it this way, he played a hell of a lot more there than anywhere else."

On winter mornings McNeill would watch Clarke disappear to a quiet part of the course to work on a game which was gradually coming together. Because he was becoming a fixture around the place nobody bothered him unduly. "He worked incredibly hard," says McNeill. "Especially on his short game. He was comfortable with his irons, his swing was pretty much where he wanted it to be. I think his short game was the difference. When he won in Mallorca he was pleased but you could tell he wanted more. Obviously this was the one."

And no sooner had Clarke sank the winning putt at Royal St George's than attention turned to the prospect of Royal Portrush staging the tournament it had hosted back in 1951, four years after Daly became Ireland's first Major winner at Hoylake. By the end of the week, McIlroy had added his voice to the growing clamour. "It would be huge if we got it here," he said. "We're still keeping our fingers crossed."

Whether such hopes are realistic is open to question. The doubts expressed about the logistics of staging the Open in Northern Ireland or Portrush's ability to cope with the crowds are less of an issue than the fact that, with nine venues on the rota, the Royal & Ancient may feel there is simply no room for any more. Peter Dawson, the R&A secretary, was cautious and diplomatic when the question was put to him last week, but dropped no hint that it was likely to happen any time soon.

Yet it is a story with sprightly legs and the announcement on Friday that the Northern Ireland government was willing to provide "substantial financial backing" to host a European tour event at the course pushed it in an altogether better direction. The speculation quickly surfaced that it might even be next year's Irish Open, currently without a sponsor, and the attraction of that would be obvious.

It would be nothing new, of course. Royal Portrush has staged the Irish Open on three occasions, although not since 1947, and given that the sport is run on a 32-county basis, it seems a touch inappropriate that the tournament hasn't been any further north than Co Louth in the meantime. In recognition of recent triumphs and one of the world's finest courses, it would be a fitting starting point.

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