Clarke revels in being back where he belongs
Darren Clarke has learned from the best and that includes some amateur rivals, says Dermot Gilleece
On a bitter afternoon of cold winds and stinging showers, Portmarnock's practice green offered no protection from winter's early grip. Still, successive groups of elite young golfers stood mesmerised as Darren Clarke displayed his full repertoire of short-game skills, including bunker recoveries with an open-faced eight iron.
These were the facilities Arthur Pierse had used as a student member nearly 30 years previously, when he was attending Trinity College. As a bonus, there were frequent encounters with legendary professional, Harry Bradshaw, who had few peers as an exponent of the short game.
After his vice-captain's role in the Ryder Cup early last month, Clarke was pleased to be making a different sort of contribution to the game through his Foundation. And prominent among the 27 boy and girl champions, Dermot McElroy of Ballymena had carded a remarkable 67 at Portmarnock earlier in the day.
Over dinner in the clubhouse that evening, Clarke urged his charges not to hesitate to ask him questions. "When I was your age, I didn't have the opportunity of picking the brains of someone who had been 20 years on tour," he told them. "Maybe I can give you the little something extra that could decide your next match, or lower your next round by one or two strokes. It might even help you win a tournament."
Though he has always been supportive of golf in these parts, there seems an enhanced Irishness about him since his move back to Portrush in August with his two sons. It was the native place of their mother, Heather, who was taken cruelly by cancer in 2006.
Reflecting a few days ago on the weekend's activities, Clarke enthused about Ireland's golfing terrain and how, per head of population, this island has probably contributed an unrivalled number of outstanding players to the game. And he predicted that Rory McIlroy, who attended the inaugural Foundation weekend in 2002, would claim the world number one spot within the next three years.
Then he revealed the influences on his own game and how he filled three little notebooks with golfing tips from such notables as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Vijay Singh and Greg Norman. "Coming through the ranks, I discovered that if you plucked up the courage to ask a question like 'how do you play that shot?', players were only too pleased to respond," he said. "Later, I found myself going back over those notes which became a marvellous help."
All of which got me thinking about the great players Clarke must have encountered since first coming to prominence as a youth at Dungannon. Part of his answer was fairly predictable but the rest of it absolutely stunned me.
For all-round talent, he rated Garth McGimpsey, the winner of 14 championships including the 1985 British Amateur, as the best amateur he ever encountered. And the best golf he ever saw played was by Tiger Woods in his vintage year of 2000 when Clarke, incidentally, beat him in the final of the Accenture World Matchplay Championship at La Costa. "I ground him into submission," he said with an almost apologetic grin. Then Clarke said: "To this day, Arthur Pierse is one of the best ball strikers I've ever played with. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that he has flushed the ball more than anybody I've ever met, professional or amateur. And that includes Tiger, even as he was in 2000.
"Arthur didn't know how unbelievably gifted he was. I loved playing with him. Mind you, as an opponent you could very easily wind him up and get under his skin. When his first three-footer of a match slipped past the target, a comment like 'can you believe that?' or 'how did that one miss?' was often all you needed to knock him off balance. But I repeat that Arthur was one of the most gifted golfers I have ever played with anywhere in the world. And it's no coincidence that he and Garth are both from Ireland. I remember he had an old Tommy Armour driver with a black graphite shaft and never seemed to miss a fairway. I wasn't surprised to learn he still plays off plus two. He played like a pro in the amateur game, apart from his putting, that is."
Interestingly, on the weekend Clarke was at Portmarnock, Pierse was winning the gross prize in the South Eastern Alliance at Dungarvan GC, with a four-under-par 68. At 59, he has finally found compensation for any dulling of superb ball-striking skills in a much-improved putting stroke.
Clarke was 19 when first encountering the Tipperary man competitively in the semi-finals of the 1987 North of Ireland at Royal Portrush. "That match has stayed with me as the first time I was aware of playing a real, proper golfer," he said. "Garth led the qualifiers, Arthur was third and I think I was 10th or 11th (Clarke was, in fact, 11th). He was amazing. Beat me 6&5."
That was in mid-July. Four weeks later, their paths crossed again, indirectly, in the Irish Close at Tramore on August 9 to 12. On this occasion, as the reigning North of Ireland champion, Pierse led the qualifiers but suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Baltray's JP Fitzgerald in the second round.
Then, no doubt remembering the hammering he had administered at Portrush the previous month, he felt moved to offer some words of encouragement to an old international team-mate, Mick Morris of Portmarnock, who was facing Clarke in the next round.
"This fella Clarke is only a flash in the pan," said Pierse. "You'll take him easily, Mick." Later, while reeling from a 7&6 thrashing, Morris suggested that as a judge of golf, Pierse should stick to the motor business, or words to that effect.
That was the occasion when Clarke won through to the semi-finals only to fall on the 20th to the bold JP who, as it happened, went on to lose the final by two holes to local man, Eddie Power.
Fitzgerald, of course, later caddied for Clarke and would mischievously remind his employer of events at Tramore. "Okay, he beat me," acknowledged the professional. "It's there in black and white in the record books, but no matter how often he gets at me about it, he knows in his heart it was a fluke; that he got it up and down from all over the place."
Meanwhile, Clarke's assessment of Pierse becomes all the more remarkable when one considers that the Tipperary man never played at boys or youth level and had a humble 14 handicap on enrolling at Trinity as a 19-year-old. Tennis and rugby had been his real sporting loves up to that point.
However, as a member of The Wedges, Trinity's second team, golf began to rise sharply in his priorities. And he resurrected The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the classic instruction book by Ben Hogan which his father had introduced him to years earlier. And when his handicap came tumbling down, he bought a set of Hogan Apex irons which Harry Bradshaw imported specially from the US.
So it was that in the footsteps of the master, Pierse carved out a classic swing in the dirt of the practice ground, without professional tuition. The power fade which he perfected, would bring him four championships, Eisenhower Trophy representation in 1982 and Walker Cup honours a year later. And he's still winning, three decades on.
As for Clarke, who is heading for the Singapore Open this week, a return to his Irish roots is best illustrated by events in early August at Bushfoot GC in Port Ballantrae That's where his sons Tyrone (12) and Conor (9) are members, along with their first cousins, his sister Andrea's two sons.
"Having driven home from Killarney on the Sunday night of the Irish Open, I went the next morning to Bushfoot in jeans and trainers," he said. "And after walking nine holes with the four boys, I had a picture taken of the five of us on the first tee, and me with a pint of Guinness in my hand. I could never have done anything like that in England.
"Portrush is where I met Heather and it's now where our two boys will be raised. Everything is coming full circle. I was away from it long enough and it was time for me to come back home."
Home to the scene of a fateful match against Arthur Pierse, 23 years ago.