Sunday 11 December 2016

Major status allows Clarke to map out world of possibility

Darren Clarke has his eye on the Ryder Cup captaincy in 2016, as he tells Dermot Gilleece

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

While a wild west wind brushed the links at Portmarnock GC for his Foundation weekend, Darren Clarke considered the wonderful ways of golf. Like how it seemed only yesterday he was coaching the precocious skills of Rory McIlroy on this terrain and now master and pupil will be rivals this week in the $1.35m PGA Grand Slam of Golf.

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Through a distinguished career, this event in beguiling Bermuda was one of only two unfulfilled assignments among Clarke's competitive ambitions: the other being Jack Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village. "I think there's a chance I could be invited to that one next year," said the Open champion with a knowing grin.

Three months on from his triumph at Royal St George's, he drove into the Portmarnock car-park in a product of that particular labour -- a Mercedes SL63 AMG carrying the registration 5 DCC. Later, in yet another meeting with the Maguire twins, he remarked that Leona's chipping action had "got better and better." Adding: "You've obviously been working hard on it."

He clearly enjoyed engaging with the youngsters who treated him as they might a benevolent uncle rather than a figure of authority.

With him was the coveted Claret Jug which, it seems, is never far from his side. "I bring the Jug around so that people who would normally have seen it only in pictures can appreciate what a really special object it is," he explained proudly.

All the while, he is deeply conscious of what it is going to mean to the remainder of his golfing career. At the moment, he can revel in the official R and A title of Champion Golfer of the Year before adopting the lifelong distinction of Open champion. This brings exemptions into all of the Majors for the next five years; automatic entry into the Open beyond that, and full, lifelong exemptions into the senior tours on both sides of the Atlantic. And it greatly enhances his hope of becoming Ryder Cup captain.

"This time last year I was looking at a possible move into television and expanding my golf-course design activities," he said. "TV (with Sky) was an avenue that had been offered me and I was giving it a bit of consideration. It would have been only for specific tournaments, just like David Howell has been doing.

"I always planned to continue my playing career. Now, however, exemptions into the Majors take me up to 48. After that, touching wood, I plan to join the Champions Tour in the US when I'm 50 and play until I'm 55. Though I love the game, I suspect that will be enough. Then, after 55, I'll play a bit of social golf, focusing on my three favourite courses which, in no particular order, are Royal Portrush, Portmarnock and Pine Valley. And I can help kids through my Foundation and go fishing around the world. In the meantime, if I'm lucky enough, they may ask me to be Ryder Cup captain."

When did he have in mind, given that colleague Paul McGinley seems to be a frontrunner for 2014 at Gleneagles? "I was thinking that 2016 (at Hazeltine National, Minnesota) might be a possibility," he replied. "But I've got to be asked.

"It would be a huge honour. The Ryder Cup became a big part of my life from the time I first played at Valderrama in 1997. And for so many reasons, The K Club (2006) was unforgettable. There is also the point that by playing in all the Majors, I would be competing with potential team members. Which would obviously be beneficial."

His choice of an American staging makes obvious sense in view of his popularity in that part of the world, especially from the time he hit the headlines there by beating Tiger Woods in the final of the Accenture Matchplay at La Costa in 2000. Either way, the impression given by Clarke was of a candidate with more than an outside chance of success. And, as yet another possible prize, I pointed out that as an international panelist, I had just voted for him in the annual ballot for the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Clarke continued: "Through different things, I lost a lot of time out of my career but it's as if I've had five years given back to me, even if the demands on my time at the moment are much more hectic than I imagined. It took me a long time to win my first Major but I would like to think that I can now recreate the mental attitude that carried me through at Royal St George's. Either way, after last playing there in 2007, it will be nice to be going back to the Masters next April."

Meanwhile, I suggested that in a downside to being Open champion Paul Lawrie once talked of the additional pressure it placed on his subsequent performances. As in the self-criticism of not hitting a particular shot in a manner befitting his elevated status. Without wishing to offend the Scot who had only two European Tour successes at the time of his 1999 Carnoustie triumph, Clarke made it clear this wasn't a problem he expected to face.

"Our situations are very different," he said. "I've won 21 times around the world, including two world championships, along with playing in five Ryder Cups. The fact that I remain my own worst critic has nothing to do with being Open champion. I imagine all the additional commitments I'm having will have died down by Christmas and I can then settle back to what I should be doing: concentrating on my game"

The Grand Slam of Golf, described by the organisers as "the game's most exclusive foursome", will have all of this year's first-time Major winners in action over 36 holes on Tuesday and Wednesday at Port Royal GC. Which means that Clarke and McIlroy are joined by Charl Schwartzel (US Masters) and Keegan Bradley (PGA Championship).

Instituted in 1979, it has had two previous Irish challengers with Pádraig Harrington finishing runner-up in 2007 and 2008 and Graeme McDowell finishing fourth last year. Curiously, the only European winner has been Ian Woosnam in 1991.

Reflecting on the early years of his Foundation, could Clarke ever have imagined playing the Grand Slam with that slip of a lad from Holywood? "You mean looking back when I was trying to teach him?" he said laughing. "With 21 years between us, I don't think anybody could have imagined this, though I believe Rory will win multiple Majors."

By that stage, David Carey of Hermitage, the Ulster under 15 champion with a remarkable look of McIlroy about him at that age, smashed a bomber down the ninth. "Who does he remind you of?" I asked Clarke. "Yeah, there's a resemblance, no question," he acknowledged. And we looked again, and wondered.

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