Saturday 3 December 2016

Clarke has a wealth of positive and negative experience to draw on

Europe's captain had an eventful Ryder Cup debut under the remarkable Ballesteros

DERMOT GILLEECE

Published 25/09/2016 | 17:00

Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

When drawing on past experience in preparing his troops for battle, one imagines Darren Clarke having decidedly mixed memories of his own Ryder Cup debut at Valderrama in 1997. That was when skipper Seve Ballesteros ignored his status as one of Europe's leading players and left him idle for the opening day.

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While old hands like Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie were conscious of heightened tension, it was an especially difficult time for the five rookies in the European side. Before the pairings were announced, I can recall the look of resignation when Clarke remarked: "I'm hitting the ball solidly. There's nothing more I can do. It's now up to Seve."

He had just completed a somewhat confusing practice session in which he played eight holes of foursomes with Ignacio Garrido and the remaining 10 in partnership with Lee Westwood. And along the way, there was a lesson in bunker-play from the master.

It happened at the ninth, where Clarke found himself on the down-slope of a greenside trap. Uncomfortable about what he claimed was insufficient sand in the bunker, he proceeded to thin two recovery attempts. But his captain decided that a lack of sand wasn't the problem.

As a moderately useful exponent of the wedge, Ballesteros noticed that instead of following the line of the sand on the follow-through, the player was raising the club at impact. "I told Darren to keep the clubface lower than the ball and straight away, it was a perfect shot," said the Spaniard.

Clarke's view? "Sure, Seve's a genius at those shots and I was only too happy to take his advice. We sorted it out in a matter of seconds." Ballesteros then insisted that if he observed problems when battle commenced, he would not wait for a player to seek his advice. "Even if it is Nick Faldo, I will take action - immediately," he said.

Whatever about bunker wizardry, man-management skills came under close scrutiny when the pairings were announced for the opening matches in the 32nd Ryder Cup. By his own admission, Ballesteros didn't see fit to inform the omitted players, who included Clarke, that they were being left out of the following morning's fourballs.

In sharp contrast, US skipper Tom Kite went to each group of four from the American team to outline his plans, as they played the front nine on the previous morning. "I'm surprised that Monty's paired with [Bernhard] Langer," he said later. "I expected him to be with Darren Clarke."

When the European captain was asked if he had given the bad news to the four who were left out, he replied: "No." Then, pointing to a monitor he added: "They will see it now on television." Earlier, Clarke had admitted: "I haven't been told anything, but I'm not hopeful."

Later, when his worst fears were confirmed, he said: "I'm very disappointed, particularly in view of how well I have been playing." But his manager Chubby Chandler attempted to lift his spirits by urging: "Be dignified and do your part for the team, no matter how badly you feel."

The indications were that Clarke was also set to take no part in the foursomes on Friday afternoon. And that his first outing was likely to be on Saturday morning as Montgomerie's partner in the second series of fourballs. Which, ironically, enhanced his chances of earning a Ferrari Testarossa, on offer to the player emerging with a 100 per cent record.

As a devotee of fast cars, Clarke could have done with the lift, especially in the light of the mess that was made of a key detail in the opening ceremony. The general ignorance of the European Tour regarding the political status of Ireland north and south has long been a bugbear of mine. And Valderrama marked a regrettable low in this context.

The hurt of being sidelined for the first series of matches the following morning, was compounded for the Northern Ireland native during the opening ceremony.

With the European side comprising representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Spain, Denmark, Italy and Germany, each player was highlighted on a large screen while his national anthem was played. For God Save the Queen, however, the camera picked out only the English, Scottish and Welsh players: Clarke was ignored.

None of which would have been designed to lift the spirits of a 29-year-old rookie. But he did his bit, noticeably visible in supporting Jose Maria Olazabal and Costantino Rocca in the leading foursomes of the Friday afternoon, when Ballesteros caught sight of him on the 17th.

"Are you OK, Darren?" enquired the skipper from his buggy, before signalling a thumbs up. To which Clarke responded - "Sure. I'm fine. I'm OK." - while anticipating a call to action which duly came that evening.

In fact, he and partner Montgomerie came from two down to win the top fourball on Saturday morning, beating Fred Couples and Davis Love by one hole. As it happened, this was to be the only highlight: he was omitted once more from the foursomes and went on to lose his singles by 2 and 1 to Phil Mickelson on the Sunday.

But the overall result went Europe's way. And Clarke could reflect on a wealth of experience which might prove to be useful in some future time.

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