Clarke still retains an appetite for competitive battle
Slimmed-down 2011 hero too good on the links to be written off, writes Ewan Murray
Three years have passed since Darren Clarke completed one of modern sport's most endearing tales. At 42, after more than two decades of trying, Clarke was finally an Open champion.
As he returns to that stage once again this week, Clarke is virtually unrecognisable in a physical sense. He has shed four stone and lost nine inches off his waist since last October.
"I saw myself on television and I was too big," Clarke says. "I thought for my own longevity of playing the game, seniors or whatever, I wasn't doing myself any good with the size I was at. It was for my own well-being, but also because I'm still trying to work. I have done weights, weights, weights and I'm as strong as I have ever been. No cardio, all weights and being more careful with my food."
One appetite which has not deserted Clarke is for the heat of competitive battle. He is an engaging character and, in a golf purist's sense, still a glorious iron player. Yet the Open win did not kick-start a renaissance in his career. Quite the opposite, in fact; Clarke clearly toiled in a professional sense after his Royal St George's heroics.
Many onlookers asked if he had simply given up, now that a career pinnacle had been reached. In his next major outing, at the USPGA Championship, Clarke was 14-over after 36 holes. "It was very difficult," says Clarke of readjusting his goals. "If I had won it when I was a bit younger, it would have been totally different to winning it at 42.
"All I have ever wanted to do, from the moment I turned professional, was to win Majors, but more importantly, if I was to pick one, it would be the Open. I have managed to achieve that. It took me a long time. I had chances before and didn't quite do it, but I eventually got it done. After I had done it, I really struggled with 'What do I do now?' It is easy to say go on and win more tournaments, challenge for more stuff and, of course, that's what I want to do, that's why I am still playing.
"But after winning the Open it took me quite a while to sober up and figure out what my goals are. I still have goals. Winning it at the stage I did made those goals a lot more difficult to work out than if I had done it years earlier."
Do not dare suggest to Clarke, though, that he is an example of the negative spin-offs occasionally associated with stunning achievement. "Listen, there is absolutely zero negatives involved with winning the Open," he says. "The poor golf I have played since winning it? That's fine. Of course I don't want to play like that, but if you had said to me in the past three years I could have won another four or five tournaments instead of winning the Open? I'd have said: 'No thanks.' My name is on the Claret Jug and always will be. I feel very privileged that it is there. I want to get myself back into contention again, wherever that may be.
"The scoring side of my game has been poor but my actual ball-striking hasn't been. I am doing everything I can do to keep myself as competitive as I can be. That's why I have gone to the gym, got myself so fit and strong and practised as hard as ever. I can't leave it alone, I want to play golf. I love the game and hate the game, but that's professional golf."
Whether he will achieve something else, namely by taking charge of Europe at a Ryder Cup, remains to be seen. He should be slight favourite for captaincy at the 2016 event at Hazeltine, but a select group, all of similar age, have their eyes on the very same prize. "I'd love to be captain, but you don't campaign for that," Clarke insists. "You are invited to do it."
The heartache which once consumed Clarke's personal life is well recorded. The last time the Open was at Hoylake, in 2006, his wife Heather was just weeks from death. Clarke played, but understandably missed the cut.
Upon his return to Merseyside, Clarke will have four rounds of competitive warm-up at Royal Aberdeen under his belt. "I am playing OK, I really am. Quite nicely. My timing has been a little bit off sometimes, but I hit it beautifully at the Scottish Open on Thursday. I feel as if the game is fine.
"My form this past while wouldn't suggest that I am going to win the Open again next week, but if you put me on a links course and I play like I played on Thursday? I just love links golf, it is just one of those things."
If Clarke does not prevail at this Open, he won't cry about it. But, experience and links specialism means his prospects should always be taken seriously. Observer
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