Sport Golf

Sunday 24 September 2017

He's won hearts and trophies - now his time has come

Darren Clarke is pictured moments after being announced as captain of Team Europe for the 2016 Ryder Cup. Photo: Getty
Darren Clarke is pictured moments after being announced as captain of Team Europe for the 2016 Ryder Cup. Photo: Getty
Darren Clarke of Europe salutes the crowd on the 16th green after winning his singles match against Zach Johnson of USA on the final day of the 2006 Ryder Cup. Photo: Getty

Karl McGinty

THE world cried with him in 2006 when, his Ryder Cup job done after three Herculean days, he finally gave in to overwhelming emotion on the 16th green at The K Club.

We roared as he skulled that pint in one go on the clubhouse rooftop that afternoon and roguishly raised his glass to the heavens in triumph.

We smiled and blinked back tears of joy when, a few weeks shy of his 43rd birthday, he lifted the Claret Jug as British Open Champion at Royal St George's in July 2011.

Darren Clarke has been winning hearts and trophies for years - now, at 46, he has been charged with leading Rory McIlroy and Europe's other young tigers into action at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.

Being selected as Ryder Cup captain is one of the greatest honours in golf. It's a hugely demanding and time-consuming role, especially in the year the match takes place.

Though unpaid, the prestige it brings can yield an estimated €2m in endorsements, speaking engagements, book deals and so forth - depending, of course, on the success of the team.

Irish golf's first Ryder Cup captain, Paul McGinley, proved to be one of the most innovative and inspirational of all time as he led the rout of US icon Tom Watson and his team at Gleneagles last September.

In five-times Ryder Cup player Clarke, our little island has produced for Europe a skipper with (almost) as much charisma as Seve Ballesteros.

Long famous for flash clothes, Ferrari sports cars, chomping on giant cigars and a volatile nature, Clarke used to always be described as 'larger than life'. Yet that moniker no longer fits, especially since he sculpted 42 pounds off his bodyweight in a life-changing fitness programme over the past 15 months.

Clarke was in the exclusive Fancourt resort in South Africa yesterday when informed by telephone of the five-man Ryder Cup selection panel's "unanimous" decision to choose him ahead of Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain and Denmark's Thomas Bjorn.

Scheduled to play this week's Dimension Data Pro-Am with the eldest of his two boys, Tyrone (17), Clarke played 18 holes of practise with his son, then spent a couple of anxious hours waiting with wife Alison for the verdict to come.

Would he be downing plenty of the black stuff in celebration? "No, no no," he replied. "I'm down here playing with Conor so I've got to behave myself."

There'll be precious little time for Guinness over the next 18 months as Clarke ventures into unknown territory. Though twice a Ryder Cup vice-captain - to Colin Montgomerie in 2010 and Jose Maria Olazabal at Medinah in 2012 - he's never taken the helm himself.

His duties as captain "start straight away, so I'm going to try and figure out what's required of me", he said. "I'm not familiar with what's required from the captain's role. I have to learn all that and I need to get to grips with it pretty quick."

The distraction might be just what he needs to help break a frustrating cycle in his playing career, which, despite his best efforts, has seen Clarke fail to win in nearly four years since The Open.

The whirl of social engagements and off-course commitments which demand attention from the Ryder Cup captain will not be allowed divert the 'New Darren' from his fitness programme.

He plans to fit into the same slim-fit uniform in 18 months in Minnesota as he would today. "I don't plan to put any more weight back on again," Clarke laughed. "I may have to socialise a little more but I'll try to keep my weight as it is."

Still, his reputation remains extra-large among his peers. Former captains McGinley, Montgomerie, Olazabal and the two other members of the selection panel, English Ryder Cup player David Howell and European Tour CEO George O'Grady, discussed the captaincy for nearly two hours in Wentworth's palatial golf club yesterday.

Yet the verdict was straightforward. O'Grady neatly summed it up in four words: "Darren's time has come."

World No 1 McIlroy, who along with fellow Major-winning Ulsterman Graeme McDowell and a coterie of Europe's top golfers had expressed public support for Clarke, said: "I couldn't think of a better guy to play under in 2016."

Harking back to the heroics of the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club, when Clarke found deep inside the strength and courage to win three games out of three just six weeks after the death from cancer of first wife Heather, McDowell said: "None of us will ever forget the emotions there.

"His record in the Ryder Cup and as a golfer are outstanding, with the Open as the jewel in the crown."

Irish Independent

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